Saturday, March 31, 2007

How long has it been?

Who's asking: Jack the Bulldog, Washington, DC

Yes, it's been 23 years since Georgetown's men's basketball team won the NCAA tournament. And no, Jack the Bulldog doesn't actually talk.

But any Georgetown fan knows that this question has only one answer, and that's the Georgetown Fight Song:

It's been so long since last we met,
Lie down forever, lie down;
Or have you any money to bet,
Lie down forever, lie down.

There goes old... Georgetown,
Straight for a... rebound,
See how they... gain ground,
Lie down forever, lie down,
Lie down forever, lie down.

Rah! Rah! Rah!
Hurrah for Georgetown,
Cheer for victory today.
'Ere the sun has sunk to rest,
In the cradle of the West,
In the clouds will proudly float
The Blue and Gray.

We've heard those loyal fellows up at Yale
Brag and boast about their Boola-Boola.
We've heard the Navy yell,
We've listened to Cornell;
We've heard the sons of Harvard tell
How Crimson lines could hold them.
Choo Choo, Rah Rah, dear old Holy Cross;
The proud old Princeton tiger
Is never at a loss.
But the yell of all the yells,
The yell that wins the day,
Is the "HOYA, HOYA SAXA!"
For the dear old Blue and Gray.


I have not been able to find an MP3 of this, though I have it on good authority that one exists. If anyone has it, feel free to post it in the comment section.

Friday, March 30, 2007

What I Read This Week

No questions today. I do have a backlog, but they're all things that require investigation or serious thinking, and I'm at the end of a busy, busy workweek. Good to have the work -- good to be here in Washington, where everything's in bloom -- but I am tired and very close to tapped out. I've run out of the easy questions, so if you have any, send 'em in.

Next stop, Montreal; I fly from here back to New Hampshire tomorrow morning, get in a car and drive north to the border. If you're in the area, go see the fabulous Claire Bea and some other people in McGill's production of The Merchant of Venice, running this weekend and next weekend.

My reading list's been heavy on bestsellers lately, but as I said earlier in the week, the fact that something is popular doesn't mean it's not good.

What I Read This Week

Lisa Scottoline, Daddy's Girl. In my theoretical bookstore, where I'd classify things as "Contributions to Humanity," "Entertainment Without Insult," and "Total Crap," this book would get display space in "Entertainment Without Insult." Law professor Natalie Greco is the lone girl in a large, smothering family of brothers who all work for their father’s construction company. Nat agrees to teach a class at a local prison, but a riot breaks out during her first class, and a prison guard dies in her arms. His last words are “Tell my wife it’s under the floor.” Delivering this message should be simple, but someone’s willing to kill Nat to keep her from doing it. Solid entertainment, with some interesting insights about justice vs. law and -- coincidentally -- The Merchant of Venice.

Harlan Coben, The Woods. This book doesn't come out until April 17; Mr. Coben has agreed to be a victim -- er, subject -- of a Mystery Bookstore podcast at the end of April, so I could pretend this was homework. Of course I'd have read it in any case, and it's Coben at his best: a tight, suspenseful thriller narrated by someone who may not be telling the reader everything he knows. County prosecutor Paul Copeland is called to a murder scene, because the victim has a stack of press clippings about the disappearance and presumed murder of Copeland's sister, 20 years earlier. Camille was never found, but two other bodies were, victims of a serial killer later convicted for similar crimes. Paul is shocked when he realizes the murder victim is the fourth person who went missing that night -- also presumed killed -- and starts a new search to find out, once and for all, what happened to his sister. The Woods kept me guessing to the very end -- an ending both happy and sad, in surprising ways.

Declan Hughes, The Color of Blood. If The Wrong Kind of Blood could be described as "Philip Marlowe in Dublin," The Color of Blood moves squarely into Ross Macdonald territory. Dublin P.I. Ed Loy takes on a missing persons case for a wealthy dentist, Shane Howard, after Howard receives a blackmail threat containing pornographic pictures of his daughter. Within 24 hours, the daughter's ex-boyfriend and her mother are found murdered, and Loy's client is arrested for the crimes. Loy's search for answers turns up increasingly horrific secrets, leading to a devastating climax. The moral of the story is, "Everybody lies," and with this second novel, Hughes further carves out his own space in the PI canon. After I finished this book, I needed to sit in the sunshine and look at some pretty flowers for a while.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What are the qualities of "right brain" and "left brain"?

Who's asking: Laura Lippman, Baltimore, MD

Let me clarify: Laura did not ask me this question personally. It came up during the talk she gave last night at Politics & Prose, and she said she could never remember which was which: is left the analytical side and right the intuitive side, or vice versa?

Since I can never remember either, I looked it up as soon as I got back to Joanne's. (Yeah, it's a disorder. I make money off it. Making money off your worst personality traits is the key to a happy life. As Robertson Davies wrote, feed your bear, and your bear will feed your fire.)

The theory of Hemispheric Dominance posits that the left side of the brain controls linear thinking, logic, language, and the memory of real events, while the right side handles imagination, intuition, and the nonverbal processing of information.

It is a common misconception (i.e., something I thought) that "left brain" is math and science and "right brain" is words and music. It's more about whether you receive and process information by putting it in categories, measuring it and giving it names (left brain), or by taking it all in, letting it float around and seeing what connections arise (right brain).

Of course, all of us do both, but we all have a preference. I found an online test that scored me a 10 on the left brain and a 9 on the right brain. I'd like to believe that says I'm a well-balanced thinker, but I'm afraid what it really means is that I'm good at taking those tests.

Anyway, Laura was fascinating to hear last night, Politics & Prose is one of the great bookstores of the world, and everyone should read What the Dead Know, regardless of Hemisphere Dominance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What was the marriage age for girls in Shakespeare's England?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher from the U.K.

I should not look at the search strings that bring people to this site, because all it does is worry me. I've talked about this before. It still worries me.

I suspect that this question was someone's homework, but since I find it interesting -- and since Claire is performing Shakespeare this very weekend -- I will answer it. Also, it dovetails nicely with Karen Olson's latest post over at First Offenders, so maybe she'll chime in.

Average life expectancy for women in Tudor England was about 30. At least half of all women died in childbirth (not necessarily on the first child, but in the absence of meaningful birth control, six children in six years was no rarity). Infectious diseases were basically untreatable, and people died from things like tooth decay.

So the average age of marriage was 14 or 15, which shocks us now but made perfect sense to the Elizabethans. Adolescence is a relatively new concept; back then, you were a child or you were an adult. Once you were an adult, you got a job, got married, and set up your own household.

Therefore, the high school student's argument for young love -- "Juliet was only 14!" -- doesn't play in 2007. At 14, Juliet had every reason to believe that she was almost halfway through her life. Life expectancy for an American woman in 2003 was 80.1 years. By comparable standards, I should only have been dating for the last two or three years (and Claire, you should not be dating at all). If 40 is the new 30, 14 is the new ten and a half. (I did the math.)

Five Random Songs

"Basket Case," Green Day. Not everything popular is bad.
"Swinging Down the Lane," Frank Sinatra. It's springtime in Washington, and that always means Sinatra to me.
"Te Busque," Nelly Furtado featuring Juanes. A gift from my friend Joanne. Still not sure what I think of this record, but it's got a beat and you can dance to it.
"Train in Vain (Stand by Me)," The Clash. I never owned a "Train in Vain" t-shirt. If I tried to wear one now, that would probably just be sad. Life is full of these missed opportunities.
"Candy's Room," Bruce Springsteen. Man, I love this song. Turn it up.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How can this salad dressing be fat-free?

Who's asking: Joanne Hanley, Chevy Chase, MD; me

Dinner with my friend Joanne last night included a new salad dressing she'd bought for its unlikely label: "CALORIE-FREE Creamy Bacon Dressing." Joanne, like me, comes from a long line of Irish-Americans with a healthy respect (not to say an unhealthy fetish) for bacon; we're not used to seeing the words "calorie free" juxtaposed with "bacon."

So we tried it. It wasn't bad, tasting mostly of vinegar and mustard. It was creamy, though -- opaque and white -- and smelled faintly of bacon, thanks to the imitation bacon bits on the ingredients label. For something fat- and sugar-free, it was a perfectly acceptable addition to iceberg lettuce. (Shut up. Iceberg lettuce is part of my cultural heritage.)

The question remains, how is this possible? It's the fifth ingredient listed, after the triple filtered purified water, the apple cider vinegar, the white vinegar and the dijon mustard (also vinegar-based): Cellulose Gel.

Cellulose is a biopolymer (i.e., naturally-occuring substance that can take many forms) that makes up the primary matter of plants. Cotton fibers are almost pure cellulose; cellulose is also the main component of green plants. It's water-absorbent and indigestible to humans, serving as bulk or roughage in food.

Cellulose gel in food serves as a fat substitute in dairy products, in particular. I haven't been able to tell what chemists make it from, and it hardly matters, since they're reducing plant matter to its most basic level. Cellulose gel could start as cotton, corn, algae or apples; it all ends up as the same stuff.

To enhance the illusion of creaminess, food chemists combine cellulose gel with other biopolymers, most frequently xanthan gum. Xanthan gum makes liquids thicker and stickier, and acts as a stabilizer. Xanthan gum is biological in origin, but formed by a chemical process, like cellulose gel.

The next question -- maybe not for this week, but I'm adding it to the list -- is whether these additives qualify as "natural." If anybody knows, chime in.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Is God a Hoya?

Who's asking: The Tarheels, Chapel Hill, NC

Ohhhhhhhh, yeah.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

What do you need to take a dog across the border from the U.S. to Canada?

Who's asking: Me, Claire, Claire's friend Steve

This came up last weekend when I went to Montreal (once again) without Dizzy. "You should have brought Dizzy," Steve said, and Claire, at whose altar Dizzy worships, agreed. I said I didn't know whether Americans were allowed to bring dogs into Canada, or what was required.

Since I'm going back to Montreal next weekend (to see Claire and her friend Steve in The Merchant of Venice), I figured I'd look up the requirements for transporting pets across the U.S./Canada border.

I won't take Dizzy next weekend, since I'll be sharing a hotel room, but it turns out that it's pretty easy to take your pet across the northern border. All the dog needs is a valid rabies vaccination certificate, and to be free of any apparent illness that could be contagious to humans.

The heat wave (41F now!) is melting the ice on the river fast. Dizzy stood on the bank at Gardiner Landing this morning and barked at a drifting ice floe. I wish I knew what he expected it to do.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Are you home for a while now?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell, ME

No, actually. I thought I was, but I'm going back to Washington next Monday for a few days. Home for a day, then back to Montreal for the weekend. Then I'm home for two weeks, until I go to New York for a couple of days -- and then, at the end of the month, to Los Angeles for the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

It's the right time of year to leave central Maine, anyway. Yesterday's temperatures got up to the high fifties, which was great, except that it makes it impossible to walk anywhere without bogging down in mud or slushy snow. Walking in my mud boots feels like walking in giant clown shoes; they weigh about three pounds apiece, and make sucking sounds when I pick up my feet. It's amusing for the first five minutes, and then it's just annoying.

All this travel wreaks havoc on my sleep cycle, but that's not all bad, because it helps me catch up on my reading.

What I Read this Week

Randy Wayne White, Hunter's Moon. White's 14th Doc Ford book is a tight, hard-driving thriller that could almost be a standalone. Marine biologist and occasional covert operative Marion “Doc” Ford agrees to do a favor for one of the world’s most powerful men – a former President determined to avenge the death of his wife in a Central American jungle. I prefer Ford's more emotional side (as in Twelve Mile Limit or last year's Dark Light), but this is solid work.

Jung Chang, Wild Swans. Okay, this was an audiobook I listened to on last weekend's drive to Montreal. It's the true story of three generations of women in 20th century China -- Jung Chang, her mother, and her grandmother -- and it's fascinating and sad, but the most compelling story of all is that of Jung Chang's father, a true believer who was betrayed and driven mad in the Cultural Revolution.

John Connolly
, The Unquiet. After The Black Angel's operatic climax, it was hard to imagine what might come next for Charlie Parker, Connolly's series character. What comes next in this series is what comes next in anyone's life after a catastrophe that doesn't kill them: Parker just goes on to the next thing. In The Unquiet, the next thing is a woman who asks Parker to protect her from a stalker. The stalker's looking for the woman's long-missing father, a child psychiatrist suspected of sexual abuse; dealing with him means that Parker needs to find out what happened to Dr. Daniel Clay. The Unquiet is a beautifully-constructed book, less emotional than The Black Angel but tighter and more direct. It's so self-contained that it could serve as a good introduction to the series, although "The Reflecting Eye," the Parker novella in Nocturnes, could be an extended prologue.

Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead. Sometimes I worry that I don't read enough Literature -- and then I read a book like this, and remember why I don't. Brockmeier imagines a vast City inhabited by the recently dead, who live there only as long as someone on our earth remembers them. A devastating virus wipes out almost the entire population of the world, leaving only a few thousand people in the City. It turns out that all of them live in the memory of one woman, Laura Byrd, who's alone in a research station in Antarctica. As Laura discovers her predicament and tries to save herself, the inhabitants of the City discover and rediscover their own connections. The first hundred pages or so are enthralling, as Brockmeier sets up the situation -- but then he does nothing with it. Laura must die, and the residents of the City must disappear, but no one seems willing to come to grips with that realization, and it doesn't change the way any of them behave. Maybe that's the point, but I was so annoyed by the time this novel finally petered out that I wanted to hunt Mr. Brockmeier down with a ruler.

Lisa Lutz, The Spellman Files. A truly charming first novel, introducing private investigator Isabel Spellman and her family, Spellman Investigations. Isabel couldn't escape her destiny, since her parents started sending her on surveillances as a teenager; now her teenaged sister, Rae, is taking the family business a little too seriously. The Spellman Files seems inspired in equal parts by Nancy Drew and Salinger's Glass family, and Isabel is a wonderful new series character. I'm interviewing Lisa Lutz next week for another Mystery Bookstore podcast, so if you've read the book and have questions of your own, send them to me.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

What is the best mystery book you ever read, and did you buy it at The Mystery Bookstore?

Who's asking: Valerie Vanaman, Los Angeles, CA

Valerie is one of the owners of The Mystery Bookstore, so I'm a little nervous about answering this question -- but I've been reading mysteries since I got my first Nancy Drew, at the age of six or seven, and I didn't start working at The Mystery Bookstore until I was 34. (Which makes seven years next month that I've been affiliated with the store. Yikes, time flies.)

Anyway, I could never pick just one book as "the best," so here's an opportunity for another list. Even this list might change from one day to another. If these are not my absolute Top Ten Mysteries of All Time, they're favorites I go back to, have owned multiple copies of, and have thrust on unsuspecting friends. Some of them I even bought at The Mystery Bookstore.

What's your favorite mystery novel(s)? Leave them in the comments section.

And if you're in central Maine, don't miss the social event of the season tonight at Hallowell City Hall, when Gaslight Theater launches its 70th season with "Almost, Maine," by John Cariani. The performance starts at 7:30, with a gala reception to follow. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors; call 207-626-3698 for reservations.

Ten Favorite Mysteries

James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead. My favorite Dave Robicheaux novel, though Jolie Blon's Bounce comes close. I think I originally checked this out of the Alexandria Public Library (Ellen Coolidge Burke branch), but bought my own copy later.

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye. If I had to pick just one as "the best," this would be it. And I did buy it at the store. I'm embarrassed to say that I never read Chandler until I moved to Los Angeles.

John Connolly, The Killing Kind. Again, not necessarily the "best" Charlie Parker novel (that might be The Black Angel or The Unquiet, which I'll discuss tomorrow), but the one that captured my imagination most. I first read an ARC, but bought the US edition in both hardcover and paper (to give away) at the store.

James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss. Tom Ehrenfeld may have given me my copy of this book sometime in the 1980s. It is one of the greatest PI novels, and I think of it as an essential book of the 1970s.

Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca. Classic in every sense. I checked it out of the Norfolk Academy library in eighth grade, bought the paperback sometime in my twenties, and reread it at least once a year.

Dennis Lehane, Mystic River. An epic American tragedy that also happens to be a mystery. I'm pretty sure I bought my copy at the store.

Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know. The newest book on this list, and I haven't bought it yet; I got an ARC and a copy of the book itself from William Morrow. Many people will be getting this book from me as a gift, so I'll be buying a few copies from the store.

Sharyn McCrumb, She Walks These Hills. The best and saddest of McCrumb's Appalachian mysteries. I think I bought this one in an airport bookstore.

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night. Another book I first read in middle school, and I still have the battered paperback I bought then.

Josephine Tey, To Love and Be Wise. I cannot find my copy of this book, and wonder if I left it behind in one of my moves -- in which case, I will need to buy another copy (from the store, of course). It's a tossup between this one and Brat Farrar, but no one wrote better about the damage caused by polite lies.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam?

Who's asking: Kathy Henry, Hallowell, ME

Americans use the terms "sweet potato" and "yam" more or less interchangeably, but they're not the same thing at all.

We don't have much opportunity to be able to tell the difference, because it's rare to find a yam in an American food market. What we call yams are sweet potatoes with bright orange flesh; other varieties of sweet potato have lighter, yellowish flesh.

Yams are a staple in Caribbean and African cooking. (Yams are native to Africa and Asia, while sweet potatoes are native to South America.) They can be enormous -- up to seven feet long -- and can be almost any color, from off-white to purple. Yams are starchy, while sweet potatoes are -- uh -- sweet. Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family, but yams are their own family (Dioscoreaceae). Sweet potatoes will grow in both tropical and temperate zones, but yams need tropical weather. Sweet potatoes are high in beta carotene, but yams are not a particularly good source of this nutrient.

It's supposed to be the first full day of spring, but the thermometer says 15F. I know I complained about how late winter was this year, but I'm ready to move on now.

Five Random Songs

"Follow You, Follow Me," Genesis. A great love song, from the CD my friends Brian and Scott gave to their wedding guests.

"Chimes of Freedom," The Byrds.

"(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," R.E.M. It's been 23 years since Reckoning was the coolest record in anyone's collection. How is this possible?

"Every Time it Rains," Howard Tate. Howard Tate is a classic, old-school R&B singer who's making a comeback with this CD, Portrait of Howard, produced by my old friend Steve Weisberg. Anyone who loves Al Green or Jackie Wilson should make a point of picking up this record.

"Dead," They Might Be Giants. A catalog of regrets from someone who's just died: "I will never say the word/"Procrastinate" again; I'll never/See myself in the mirror with my eyes closed/I didn't apologize for/When I was eight and I made my brother/Have to be my personal slave."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why is restaurant ice clear, when my ice at home is cloudy?

Who's asking: Martha Demeritt, Sidney, ME

I had never noticed this, but Martha is right: the ice cubes you get at restaurants are clear, while the ones that come out of my ice trays are opaque. I had wondered whether this was a difference between tray ice and ice-maker ice, but Martha's refrigerator has a built-in icemaker, and her ice is cloudy, too.

The difference has two main causes. First, water in commercial (i.e., restaurant) ice-makers is filtered and sometimes even distilled to remove minerals and impurities, which make water cloudy.

Second, as Martha noted when she asked this question, restaurant ice cubes are small. This is because they're made not by freezing still water, the way tray ice and refrigerator ice-makers do, but by running chilled water over a grid. The water freezes in layers, and the cubes drop through once they reach a certain size. Freezing in layers prevents air bubbles that make the cubes opaque. Large commercial ice plants force a low-pressure air current through the freezing water, pushing air, minerals and impurities out.

Once upon a time, merchants made fortunes harvesting ice from the Kennebec River. "Kennebec Diamonds" went all over the world, with more than a million tons a year shipped out. I'm not sure I'd eat ice from the Kennebec River, although it's quite possible -- even likely -- that the river is cleaner now than it was 100 years ago.

Longtime friends of The Mystery Bookstore will want to tune in to "Dirt" at 10:00 p.m. tonight on FX, because the one and only Richard Brewer has two guest spots in tonight's episode. I've never watched the show, so producers take note: the way to get me to watch your series is to put friends of mine in the cast.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Why is it so easy to remember the number of your hotel room?

Who's asking: Bill Walsh, Washington, DC

"Or is it just me?" he asks.

It's not just you, Bill, but I do think it's something that gets harder when you're traveling a lot. I have friends who spend three months or more on the road every year, and not all of them are as good about remembering hotel room numbers as they'd like to be.

That said, it is easy for most people to remember the number of their hotel room, because it's a convergence of a few key memory-enhancing elements.

First off, the hotel room is your temporary shelter, which puts it right near the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Shelter's a physiological need, but the hotel room is a security need as well -- we always feel a little uncertain when we're traveling, and the hotel room represents a place of safety.

Second, a three- or four-digit hotel room number is the ideal size for the memory storage process called "chunking." Psychologists have established that the human brain stores information most efficiently by breaking it down into small, manageable pieces (chunks). We remember phone numbers not as seven digits (or ten digits), but as three digits plus four digits. Poetry is easier to memorize than prose because we remember it one phrase or line at a time, not in complete sentences.

Finally, think about the way you remember your hotel room number. Do you just remember the digits, or do you visualize the number on the door itself? If you visualize the number on the door itself, this is imaging, another aid to memory. Most people remember images and other direct sensory input better than they remember words or numbers. People with exceptionally good memories for words and numbers usually say they "see" the words and numbers in their minds (which is why we call that a photographic memory).

Yesterday's drive back from Montreal was a little harrowing. The weather was fine when I left the island, but turned ugly by the time I got to southern Quebec, and the drive through Dixville Notch was something I'd really not rather do again. It's spring, dammit! Why is it still snowing?

My latest Mystery Bookstore podcast interview, with Robert Crais, is now online. You can subscribe by clicking any of the four buttons in the upper right-hand corner of The Mystery Bookstore's website.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Picture of the week


Claire received the Colin Kirvy Memorial Award for her play "Answered Prayers" last night at the McGill Drama Festival (that's Claire with the tulips in her hand).

Those of you in the Montreal area can still see "Answered Prayers" and her other play, "The Metamorphosis of Frank Katz," at the Players' Theater in McGill's Shatner Building on Friday, March 23 at 8:00 p.m., and on Sunday, March 25 at 2:00 p.m. "Outing Devon," by Claire's roommate Jamie Pohotsky, runs again next Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Call 514-398-6813 for tickets.

(And yes, the Shatner building at McGill is named for this Shatner.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

What does green have to do with St. Patrick?

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

St. Patrick (387-461) is the man credited with converting the Irish to Catholicism. Among his many legends is the story that he used the shamrock, native to Ireland, as a way of explaining the mystery of the Trinity: three leaves, one leaf. March 17 is the traditional date of his death.

Green has less to do with St. Patrick himself than with Ireland, a country that is almost always damp and therefore almost always green. I've only seen the West of Ireland -- I imagine Dublin to be gray, in the manner of most cities -- but the West is magically, impossibly, dazzlingly green.

And as I've said before in this space, the trappings of the St. Patrick's Day celebration all started as expressions of homesickness. It's a homesickness for an imaginary place, of course -- today's Globe and Mail includes a special section on how much Ireland has changed in the past 20 years -- but all homes disappear the moment we leave them.

Coming up to Montreal yesterday instead of today was a good call, as the roads are a mess. Claire's two plays, "Answered Prayers" and "The Metamorphosis of Frank Katz," are being performed tonight as part of the McGill Drama Festival, and if I don't post tomorrow, it will only be because my head has exploded from pride and joy.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Why do nouns in other languages have gender?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX

Paul suggests that languages form by masculine and feminine nouns creating little baby nouns, and that's a charming idea.

Answering this question in full would require me to go back to school for an advanced degree in linguistics, in order to publish a dissertation that would add only a tiny piece of a theory to the vast body of academic work on this subject.

But hey, what's the Internet for, if not for a little reckless speculation and oversimplification?

Apparently, the earliest human languages distinguished not between male and female nouns but between living things,which had one noun form, and inanimate things, which had another. At some point, the form for inanimate things split into neuter and feminine forms; Greek and Latin nouns fall into one of these three genders.

As languages evolved, many dropped the neuter gender, while others added extra gender-based distinctions or additional "genders" to keep the animate-inanimate distinction.

Many languages blur the distinction between natural gender and grammatical gender; the word for girl in German, M├Ądchen, is a neuter noun. This is not because little girls don't have gender, but because the suffix -chen is one that designates nouns as neuter.

It's convenient that English dispenses with gender, but our language has so many other oddities -- explain cough, rough, through and ought to a non-native speaker -- that we have little room to congratulate ourselves.

What I Read This Week

Travel is seriously cutting into my time for everything else. I'm headed to Montreal today -- a day early -- to try to beat the weather, so the situation is not likely to improve next week.

Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood. Although some of the greatest American crime writers claim Irish descent, Ireland's been slow to embrace the crime novel as part of its literary tradition. In his first novel, Hughes essentially transposes a classic hardboiled story to modern-day Dublin, and it works very well indeed. Ed Loy, who left for Los Angeles 20 years before, goes home for his mother's funeral and gets himself tangled up in a deadly web of old secrets. Loy returns next month in The Color of Blood, which is already on my to-be-read pile.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Who the heck is Matt Drudge and why does all the news I read seem to come from his site?

Who's asking: James Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

Matt Drudge, 40, runs the Drudge Report, an online compendium of the news of the day. The Drudge Report began around 1994 as an e-mail newsletter of gossip; it became a freestanding website in 1997.

Drudge himself has no academic journalism credentials, but this is one of many things that make him the archetype of the Internet information age. If you read Drudge regularly (and most people I know do), you'll see that he doesn't do much original reporting; instead, he links to stories from other sources. The Drudge Report site is a portal, a menu that offers what Matt Drudge considers to be the most important news of the day.

In this respect, Drudge is not a reporter but an editor, and an extremely powerful one. Matt Drudge decides whether a political gaffe gets big attention, or gets ignored. As an example, Howard Dean's "Yee-AH!" speech might have been just another political rally, if Drudge hadn't blasted it all over his home page.

He's probably not anyone I'd want to hang out with, but I admire Matt Drudge. He was among the first to harness the Internet's vast spectrum of information, and his site is a public service. What he does is essentially the same as the way many smaller newspapers operate: where they can't afford to do their own reporting, what they publish is a collection of stories from the wire services. Drudge just has more news outlets at his disposal.

If people accuse him of pettiness, nastiness, personal agendas and sloppy fact-checking -- well, that's what journalism was, before journalism became an academic discipline. Good journalism gets adversarial, when it's about speaking truth to power.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Everybody needs to watch "October Road," on ABC tonight at 10:00 p.m. "October Road" is the latest work of my friend Gary Fleder, who directed, and his longtime colleague Scott Rosenberg, who wrote Beautiful Girls (among other works).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

What activities do you not have time for?

Who's asking: MainePulse, a survey organization affiliated with my local newspaper group

Newspapers all over the country are flailing around, looking for ways to stay relevant and necessary to their readers. This question was part of a survey that seemed designed to try to identify ways my local paper could meet specific needs of its readers; the follow-up question to this one was, "How can your paper help you make time for these activities?"

Since my response to this question was (in no particular order) exercising, housecleaning and sleeping, I replied that it was hard to imagine how a newspaper could help me do any of those things. It's fun to think about, though. Maybe the sharp and energetic editorial staff of the Kennebec Journal can come up with a machine that puts me to sleep while stimulating my major muscle groups and vacuuming my living room. Until that happens, though, I'll be glad if they just keep the crime blotter up to date.

Dizzy and I got home around 10:00 last night. Since then, Dizzy's been sleeping and I've been rushing around. The division of labor seems unfair.

Five Random Songs:

"Jezebel," Natalie Merchant. This CD (Ophelia) was my constant companion during my move to Los Angeles, and I'm still not tired of it.

"Fountain of Sorrow," Jackson Browne. A beautiful midlife song. "And while the future's there for anyone to change, still you know it seems/It'd be easier sometimes to change the past." The past does change, with our ideas of causality and significance.

"Union City Blues," Blondie. Someone I know -- is it you, Ed? -- does not understand the infinite coolness of Blondie. Whoever you are, you're just wrong.

"Rosalita," Bruce Springsteen. The one song that still gets played off this most underrated and overlooked of albums (The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle). Listening to it, I'm fifteen again.

"Sunshine on Leith," The Proclaimers. Title song off the only album anyone here remembers from these guys, identical twins from Scotland. Anyone know whether they're still performing?

Monday, March 12, 2007

When are you home again?

Who's asking: Mike Clements, W. Gardiner, ME; Dizzy; various others

Late tomorrow night. This evening I'll be in Baltimore, and Dizzy and I will hit the road again first thing tomorrow.

It's hard to blog from the road; I'm always a little overstimulated, and feel whiplashed by the many things I need to do before boarding the MARC train this afternoon. I've already apologized, so just know that things will get back to whatever passes for normal on Wednesday...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pictures of the week


It was springtime in Mechanicsville this weekend. The wind wasn't perfect for kite-flying, but we did our best.



Matthew and Henry got new bicycles. Matthew's is red, Henry's is black.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What is the distinctive flavor of ranch dressing?

Who's asking: Me

This question came up at breakfast this morning, but it's only 9:15 and I've already forgotten the context. Chris and I are visiting the Lavinders, and that's how it goes here. Options for the day include kite-flying, miniature golf, and (of course) playing with trains.

Anyway, I looked it up, and it appears that the distinctive flavor of ranch dressing is a mix of garlic powder, onion powder, and dill weed. Garlic powder and onion powder are seldom in my cupboard -- I don't really see the point of them, when I have actual garlic and actual onion -- so I probably won't be making ranch dressing from scratch any time soon.

Yesterday was a travel day, and I've reached a point of maximum distraction. Blogging will be erratic until normal service resumes on Wednesday.

What I Read This Week

Chuck Hogan, The Killing Moon. The first two-thirds of the book is a fairly conventional thriller; the last third is something different altogether. Don Maddox returns to Black Falls, Massachusetts, a dying mill town dominated by a corrupt police force. Neither Maddox nor Black Falls is what it seems to be, and this moody thriller explores questions of identity, obligation, place and redemption.

Joe Meno, The Boy Detective Fails. Thirty-year-old Billy Argo had a short, brilliant career as a child detective, working with his sister Caroline and their best friend, Fenton. It all ended when Billy went to college, Caroline killed herself and Billy wound up in a mental hospital. Ten years later, Billy returns to the world to try to find his own place in it. This odd, brilliant, lovely book is almost too precious and self-referential, but I kept reading and was glad I did. It winds up being not about its plot at all, but about the question of what happens to child prodigies who grow up, and how adults learn to live with mystery.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Are people with peanut allergies also allergic to peas, beans and other legumes?

Who's asking: Sally Gawne and Kathy Miller, Jacksonville, FL

It had never occurred to me to wonder about this, but once Sally and Kathy asked the question, it seemed obvious: wouldn't a peanut allergy mean that you couldn't eat peas and beans, too?

But no, as it turns out. Most people with peanut allergies can eat most types of legumes without having to worry about allergies. The peanut allergy is a sensitivity to one or more of three chemical compounds in peanuts. Two of those compounds occur only in peanuts; one of those compounds appears in soybeans as well, so some people who are allergic to peanuts can't tolerate soybeans, either.

The bigger question is why peanut allergies are so much more common now than they used to be. No one seems to know the answer to this. One theory is that since children no longer get many of the traditional childhood diseases, they don't build up resistance to various plant substances.

My own theory is that it's natural selection at work. We see more kids with peanut allergies and asthma these days because these kids now live normal lives, instead of dying young for unknown reasons or being kept at home as invalids. They grow up and have children of their own, who also have peanut allergies and asthma. In a weird way (in my opinion), they represent the triumph of medicine over biology, not that our environment's getting more toxic.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

How did hedgehogs get their name?

Who's asking: Paul Guyot, St. Louis, MO

Dizzy and I are staying with my former housemate Megan, who has three dogs and two cats of her own. Megan's animals have an excellent selection of toys and treats, so it's like a luxury vacation for Dizzy. Of all the cool and fancy toys, the one he likes best is a mud-covered squeaky hedgehog that looks like it might carry an infectious disease. Go figure.

Anyway, I always assumed -- without thinking too much about it -- that "hedgehog" was the British term for "porcupine." Wrong. No existing hedgehog species is native to North America, so we don't see them in the wild (that's my excuse). They're not related to porcupines at all. They're a sort of large, spiny shrew or mole -- large for shrews (five or six pounds), but much smaller than porcupines. Also, their spikes don't come out easily, as porcupines' do. Their best-known characteristic is their ability to roll themselves into a tight ball, to protect themselves from predators (or serve as croquet balls for the Queen of Hearts).

British gardeners love hedgehogs, because hedgehogs eat bugs and mice in vast quantities. An adult hedgehog can eat up to eight percent of its body weight every day. The name "hedgehog" seems to be a literal description: they live on the edges of forests, in hedgerows, and in overgrown gardens, and they eat like hogs. The word comes from the Middle English word heyghoge, which means -- uh -- hedge-hog.

It's snowing here in Washington, and I'm a little dismayed. This trip was supposed to be a visit to spring.

Five Random Songs

"Suzie Lightning," Warren Zevon. This song catapults me back to the first half of 1994, when I thought of this as my personal theme song. "She only sleeps on planes/Feels like she's going nowhere..."

"Sing Me Spanish Techno," The New Pornographers. I've blogged before about how much I like this CD (Twin Cinema).

"Donna," from the Hair soundtrack. This was a protest musical, but it feels so optimistic that it (paradoxically) makes me sad.

"Another Galaxy," Paul Simon. I've been listening to this CD (Surprise) a lot lately, and every time I hear something new. Brian Eno produced the CD, and his influence is strong on this track.

"Cattle and Cane," The Go-Betweens. From Voices from the Dark, the compilation CD John Connolly put together as a companion to the U.S. edition of The Black Angel. His next book, The Unquiet, will include a new compilation, but only in the UK edition.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

When you "beg to differ," are you really begging?

Who's asking: Tom and Hayley Ehrenfeld, Cambridge, MA

Tom writes, "It certainly seems like begging when you say 'I beg of you,' but when you're politely disagreeing (i.e. to differ-ing) then the word 'beg' seems a bit much, yes?"

Maybe -- but "beg" here is used as an excess of courtesy. I don't know about you, but I only use the phrase, "I beg to differ," when what I really want to say is, "You are wrong, wrong, wrong, you total moron." I remember a story many years ago about the administration at Duke reprimanding basketball fans for chanting "Bull----!" at referees; for a game or two, the chant changed to "We beg to differ."

One of the definitions for the word "beg" is "to make an earnest or urgent request," and synonyms include appeal, beseech, crave, implore, entreat, plead, pray, sue and supplicate. We beg to differ the same way we crave someone's pardon or pray silence for the speaker -- as an archaic usage that acknowledges the vast and charming history of our language.

On the subject of vast and charming history, I spent a wonderful morning yesterday at the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History. Thanks to Reuben, Wendy and Susan for being so helpful; the Smithsonian is a treasure house, and made me feel lucky and proud (a nice change) to be American.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Which came first, orange the fruit or orange the color?

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

This is a simplified version of Tod's question, which made my head spin: "Were oranges called oranges before the color orange was called orange?"

The answer to Tod's question is yes. The answer to the simplified version is that the use of the word "orange" to identify the tree and the fruit dates back to about 1300, but the first recorded use of the word as a color wasn't until 1542.

Color naming actually turns out to be a field of considerable linguistic research. In researching the the "red light stop/green light go" question, I learned that words for color develop relatively late in a language, although people can certainly see differences between shades (e.g., teal and turquoise) even when they don't have words to describe the difference. This caused problems for European traders as recently as the 19th century, as several trading groups in Africa, Asia and Australia used the same word for the colors blue and green.

Of course, no one needs words for colors that don't occur in their own environment. A 1956 study of the Zuni language found that, before exposure to English, native speakers had words only for colors we call pink, red, brown/yellow/orange, green, blue, and purple (weirdly, linguists didn't show the test subjects anything white, black or grey; presumably, they had words for these colors, too). Those are the colors of the Zuni landscape. Native speakers who spoke English as well started to distinguish between yellow and orange, green and light green, and blue and light blue.

Dizzy and I drove south yesterday, and color returned to the world with each state border we crossed. The snow was pretty much gone by the time we left Connecticut; here in Washington, things are already starting to be green. It feels like a slab of ice slipping off my shoulders.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

What accent did Thomas Jefferson have?

Who's asking: Jen and Steve Lechner, Freeport, ME

No one can know the answer to this, of course, but we can make an educated guess. Thomas Jefferson came from Albemarle County, and the Albemarle County accent survives among some natives to this day. Senator John Warner (R-VA) speaks with an accent that might be close to the way Thomas Jefferson sounded.

It's an accent rooted in the colonial-era British accent, with a little bit of Scottish thrown in and the whole thing rolled around in the space between the nose and the hard palate. Northerners hear Southern accents as lazy, but speaking with that particular accent feels almost like chewing.

Thomas Jefferson's mother was London-born, and his tutor was a Scot; apparently Jefferson always spoke French with a Scottish accent, because a Scotsman taught him the language.

Jefferson was self-conscious about his voice, which contemporary accounts described as weak and high-pitched. That may have been a blessing, because it kept him from pursuing a legal career that might have distracted him from greater achievements.

We got about a foot of snow yesterday, but it had warmed up so much by the end of the day that a lot of what didn't get plowed has melted. Temperatures are supposed to get up to the mid-40s today, which means a lot more melting -- and a lot more mud.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Do fans really care about steroid use anymore?

Who's asking: Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption"

This was a rhetorical question, because Kornheiser, at least, was saying that we don't. In fact, he went so far as to say he thought steroids would be legal in Major League Baseball in another 10 years.

Speaking only for myself, I care a lot. The day steroid use becomes legal in professional sports is the day I stop watching all of it.

Leave aside the fact that it's cheating. A certain amount of cheating is always part of the game, and if you can figure out a creative way to give yourself an unfair advantage over an opponent, good for you.

I don't even care much about grown men inflicting steroid-related damage on their bodies -- the skin rashes, the hair loss, the emotional instability, the loss of bone mass, the shrinking genitalia. I'm never going to date Jose Canseco, so that fact that he's a wife-beater (and probably impotent) doesn't affect me at all.

The problem is that once you legalize steroid use for professional athletes, you make it part of what student athletes aspire to -- and steroid use is much, much too dangerous to allow for adolescents. Anabolic steroids, meant to boost growth, can actually stop growth prematurely in adolescents. They can cause liver damage, high blood pressure, blood clots and other life-threatening or life-shortening health problems. Teenagers, who believe themselves immortal, are not capable of weighing potential benefits of drug use against these permanent health risks.

Okay, advocates say, so you only legalize them for adults, you require full disclosure, and you allow only doctors and trainers to dispense them. But it's already too easy for teenagers to get this stuff on the Internet; creating a legal supply chain, of any kind, just makes it that much more available.

So yeah, Tony, I care. And I care about sportscasters who, by even asking this question, imply that steroid use is benign.

What I Read These Weeks

It's a two-week list but not as long as usual, because I had company -- and because I got halfway through the advance copy of a forthcoming novel by a bestselling author, and it was so ridiculous and insulting to my intelligence that I had to put it down.

Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know. Over Easter Weekend, 1975, two sisters disappeared from a Baltimore shopping center. Thirty years later, a woman charged with leaving the scene of a car accident says she's the younger of those two girls -- but won't say more without a lawyer. The mysteries only begin here, as this astonishing novel explores the central questions of sisterhood, family, and identity. Character may be who we are in the dark, but are we anyone at all until someone calls us by name?

Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful. Full disclosure: Allison's a friend of mine. He was a charter member of my Los Angeles pub trivia team, and is one of the kindest people I know. His generosity of spirit shines through this book, which continues the adventures of B.K. Troop, an overweight, neurotic, alcoholic gay man who could be an older version of John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius J. Reilly. Troop inherits a New York brownstone and turns it into a boarding house for artists. He's trying to create a family for himself, but it's not until the arrival of Adrian, a would-be poet, that his dreams come true (in a most surprising way). A lovely, lovely book.

T. Jefferson Parker, Storm Runners. If you're in the Los Angeles area, go to The Mystery Bookstore at noon today to hear Jeff Parker talk about this book; I'm sorry I can't be there. San Diego detective Matt Stromsoe lost his wife and child to a bomb blast caused by his former best friend, Mike Tavarez, who's now running the local unit of the Mexican Mafia. When Stromsoe agrees to serve as bodyguard to Frankie Hatfield, a local weather reporter, it's only a matter of time before Tavarez joins forces with the people gunning for Hatfield.

John Harvey, Flesh & Blood. I read this one because Mark Billingham's forum discussed it this month. I'd never read anything by John Harvey before. Former Detective Inspector Frank Elder comes out of retirement when Shane Donald, convicted of rape and murder as a teenager, gets out of prison. Elder's convinced that Donald and his partner were responsible for the disappearance of another girl, Susan Blacklock, whose body was never found. As Elder tracks Shane, another girl goes missing. Then Elder's own daughter is taken. The investigation forces Elder to realize that every one of his assumptions was wrong -- which, as I recently said to a friend, is the defining passage of middle age.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Can you actually trip on your shoelace?

Who's asking: Steven Dean, Mechanicsville, VA

Steve writes: "I was running with my shoelace untied the other day. As I watched my feet and shoelace, I started thinking that the mechanics of running (or walking) would seem to indicate that for a normal walk it would be impossible to actually trip on your own shoelace."

Steve, you're more coordinated than I am. I've done this more than once, so I can explain how this happens.

Left shoe's untied; left shoe's lace flops between the right and left feet. Right shoe steps down on the left lace. Left foot tries to step forward, but is restrained by the right foot, which is holding down the left foot's shoelace. Walker pitches forward, stumbles, lands on knees or face.

Don't try this at home, unless you're auditioning for "America's Funniest Home Videos." (Is that show still on?)

Anyway, this is one of several reasons I avoid shoes with laces. I didn't learn to tie my shoes until I was seven years old. I got reasonably good at knot-tying for sailing, 20 years later, but I'd still rather not have to tie my shoes.