architecture (24)
on location (19)
random thoughts (935)
staff (22)
the design life (249)
the writing life (307)
blog archive

Etymology Wednesday

This is pretty cool (and by “cool” I mean fun for word nerds and, for everyone else, a painful reminder that word nerds exist): “How we got the terms postlude, prelude, and interlude.”

As you may have guessed, they’re all related to lude, an obsolete English word that traces all the way back to 1694 – which, in turn, has its origins in Latin. Curious, I looked up allude, collude, delude, and elude, and, sure enough, it’s the same root.

As for Quaalude, well…the jury’s still out.

The Great Database in the Sky

Just when I thought the nerds of Silicon Valley couldn’t get any weirder, news of a super-secret brain-trust of highly credentialed scientists and academics committed to a near-religious belief in the reality of UFOs starts making the rounds.

One of these cranks, a guy who goes by the name of “Tyler D.,” actually “believes that his time working for the space program, absorbing the emanations of strange and powerful machines, altered the ‘frequencies’ of his body and made it receptive to the communications of nonhuman intelligence.”

It gets weirder.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Bad news, folks: Naturalist Adrian Shine, who has led the Loch Ness Project since 1973, says Nessie doesn’t exist.

“The fact is that well over a thousand honest and sober people have seen monsters in Loch Ness,” says Shine. “Yet over 80 years of expeditions have failed to fine [sic] them. Either we’re fairly bad at what we do or there’s another reason for that.”

Oh well. At least Bigfoot is definitely still a thing.

WTF Is Wrong with Us?

Well, this is depressing:

Most of us now discriminate against members of the other political side explicitly and implicitly—in hiring, dating, and marriage, as well as judgments of patriotism, compassion, and even physical attractiveness, according to recent research.

It gets worse: Nearly half of Democrats say they’d be unhappy if their child married a Republican, 15 percent of Republicans think the country would be better off if large numbers of Democrats “just died,” and 20 percent of both parties agree that many members of the other side “lack the traits to be considered fully human.”

I don’t understand. And I mean that I literally don’t understand. What kind of a person are you who demonizes another for the crime of holding an opinion different from your own? A terrible person, that’s what.

If that describes you, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your priorities. You can start by learning from the residents of Watertown, New York.

Murder, Mayhem, and…Mapmaking?

In addition to torturing dissidents, starving millions of their own people to death, and running several countries’ economies into the ground, it turns out the commies were pretty good at cartography. In fact, the Soviet military’s secret program “was one of the greatest mapping endeavors the world has ever seen.”

Beginning in the 1940s, the Soviets mapped the world at seven scales, ranging from a series of maps that plotted the surface of the globe in 1,100 segments to a set of city maps so detailed you can see transit stops and the outlines of famous buildings like the Pentagon…. It’s impossible to say how many people took part in this massive cartographic enterprise, but there were likely thousands, including surveyors, cartographers, and possibly spies.

“Possibly” spies? C’mon. Some of these maps were better than our own. The only way to achieve that kind of detail is through espionage. Not that it mattered, of course. After all, we still won the Cold War.

Infinitesimal Deviations

In War and Peace – “the greatest of all novels” – Tolstoy “shows us how our minds work even though memory omits what makes no sense.” Gary Saul Morson explains:

When Prince Andrei’s wife is dying in labor, he waits in the next room listening to her pitiful, animal screams. He feels unendurable guilt as she suffers. At last he hears the shriek of an infant, and his first thought is “why have they taken a baby in there?” He is so focused on his wife’s suffering that he forgets—only for a split second, of course—why she is suffering. He will never remember this absurd first reaction, immediately corrected; once again, only Tolstoy would notice it.


The most prolific art thief who ever lived? Over at GQ, Stéphane Breitwieser reveals his secrets. “In the annals of art crime, it’s hard to find someone who has stolen from ten different places. By the time the calendar flips to 2000, by Breitwieser’s calculations, he’s nearing 200 separate thefts and 300 stolen objects. For six years, he’s averaged one theft every two weeks. One year, he is responsible for half of all paintings stolen from French museums.”

Kelly Faircloth on “the steamy, throbbing history of romance novel covers.” (Side note: I discovered a new word the other day – yonic – which is basically the female equivalent of phallic. Don’t ask me how I learned about it.)

Wind turbines kill more people than nuclear power plants. “[W]hen it comes to generating power for billions of people,” writes Michael Shellenberger, “it turns out that producing solar and wind collectors, and spreading them over large areas, has vastly worse impacts on humans and wildlife alike.”

Stop! Grammar Time!

Can we talk about the word belated?

Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (fourth edition) defines it: “Having been delayed; done or sent too late….”

And here’s what The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has to say: “Delayed; tardy; coming (too) late.”

So when you’re a dick and you miss someone’s birthday, don’t say, “Happy belated birthday!” The birthday wasn’t late; you were. The correct way to handle the situation, then, is to say, “Belated happy birthday!” And then to not be a dick the next time it comes around.

“Sometimes, it’s the beauty of what you can’t hear that makes a sound.”

Mark Hollis has died. The Talk Talk front man was only 64. Two of the band’s albums – 1988’s Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, from 1991 – are genuine masterpieces, and sound as fresh and uncompromising today as they did when they were new. (I’ve been listening to both on repeat since I arrived at the office this morning.)

If you’re interested in what sort of impact Hollis had on pop music, this article over at the Guardian features musicians offering their thoughts on “his songs, enigmatic spirit and musical vision.” But honestly, all you’ve got to do is listen. You’ll understand.



Good news! Artificial intelligence will never replace artists. “A machine could not surpass us massively in creativity,” writes Harvard philosophy professor Sean Dorrance Kelly, “because either its achievement would be understandable, in which case it would not massively surpass us, or it would not be understandable, in which case we could not count it as making any creative advance at all.”

Bad news! It appears to be getting easier to create deepfakes, which involves machines learning by example. “In a grim reflection on our species,” writes Ben Sixsmith, “this tends to involve anonymous netizens creating videos in which the faces of celebrities have been grafted onto the bodies of porn stars.”

So, basically, ScarJo was right. The Internet is pretty much just “a vast wormhole of darkness that eats itself.”

Poetry Break

Sir Walter Raleigh*

Even such is Time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

*Written October 29, 1618, the night before he was beheaded for conspiring against King James I.

What Is Cool?

Did you know that there are hierarchies to cool? In a brilliant and incisive (not to mention hilarious) essay over at the Sydney Review of Books, Chris Fleming breaks it down for us:

The Velvet Underground are probably cooler than the Ramones, but the Ramones are much cooler than Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd are cooler than Coldplay (the name is misleading), and Coldplay are cooler than Nickelback. And there are bands even less cool than Nickelback, although I can’t bring any to mind right at this minute.

He also knows a thing or two about the “Aspiring Cool of Instagram,” whose “Romantic Injunction” is “Watch me not caring about whether or not you watch me (but please do watch me).” And then there’s the humblebrag: “Look at me being incredibly successful even though I’m surprised and amused by this attention and – believe me – I’m not even slightly invested in it – even so, check me out. (Repeatedly if you have to. I do.)”

Cool, it turns out, is elusive. “We can’t reliably predict its path,” writes Fleming, “because it never announces its itinerary.” So I guess Tower of Power was on to something way back in 1973:

You done even went and found you a guru
In your effort to find you a new you
And maybe even managed 
To raise your conscious level
As you striving to find the right road
There’s one thing you should know
What’s hip today
Might become passé

Finally, a warning: “To compound difficulties…cool is largely an unspeakable art and its artisans will rarely admit to practicing it – to being cool, that is. Yet the converse isn’t necessarily true: denying that you’re cool doesn’t make you cool.”


Just when I think things couldn’t get any stupider, I see that John Wayne is trending on Twitter. John Wayne, the American actor who died forty years ago.


Glad you asked. Somebody apparently discovered the infamous 1971 Playboy interview in which Wayne said some mean things – words so shockingly offensive that Twitter includes this warning when you click on the link:

So now, amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the social justice mobs have turned the outrage generators up to 11. John Wayne, you see, is a “straight up piece of shit” because he wasn’t sufficiently woke. Glad to know that the pressing problems of the world – you know, poverty, tyranny, war…those sorts of things – have been solved and all that remains is to purge history of distasteful people.

As usual, Bridget Phetasy gets it right: “The definition of privilege is having so much free time and money,” she tweets, “you can spend your day online bitching about a John Wayne interview from 1971.”

Reality Check

If you’re in the midst of an existential crisis right now, you’re probably not going to want to watch this. If, on the other hand, you think stars and planets and light years are cool – and you don’t mind feeling a little insignificant – check it out.

So. Still think everyone is special?

Science FTW

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences includes a pretty interesting finding: “Listening to the music you love,” says Laura Ferreri, one of the study’s authors, “will make your brain release more dopamine, a crucial neurotransmitter for humans’ emotional and cognitive functioning.”

Which raises an even more interesting question – for me, anyway. Since dopamine “contributes to feelings of pleasures and satisfaction,” and since the music I love spans everything from Tuvan throat singing to Throbbing Gristle, does that mean I derive more pleasure and satisfaction out of life than, say, someone with more pedestrian musical tastes?

Just wondering, that’s all.

back to top    |     1 2 3 4 100     |    archive >