Tuesday, March 27, 2012

There's A Word For Everything: The Cupertino Effect

Spelling is a curious convention.  In the infancy of alphabetic scripts, there were no standardized spellings:  people just wrote words out as they sounded.  This continued into the adolescence of alphabetic scripts.  And into the quarter-life crisis of alphabetic scripts.  It didn't really matter that there were no standardized spellings, because, you know, who was reading anyway?

It was really only after the invention of the printing press that people cared to standardize spelling.  And this was a serious cause, on the same level of intense commitment as we might see today in global warming protestors.  People wrote pamphlets trying to reform spelling, wrote books, had meetings, had more meetings, made proposals, and tried to make the mess of English spelling more sensible.  Hopefully the spelled consistently, though, knowing that humanity is a hypocritical race, they probably didn't.

Anyway the reformers won, and we are left with wonderfully sensible spellings like the word 'laugh' 'name' and 'debt'.

Generations of spellers have struggled with pen and dictionary trying to remember the irrational jumble of letters that English calls its spelling.  How many countless hours of study have been wasted just because our spelling doesn't make sense?  How many lifetimes ruined by forgetting a silent E at the end of a word?

My generation is the last that will ever take spelling seriously.  And it is the first that does not need to spell properly.  The reason is that in our word processing programs there exists a friendly little fairy called a spell checker that looks at every word we write and makes sure that it is of correct orthographic assembly, and, if it is not, puts a handy little red line under it.

For every convenience of life, we suffer an equal inconvenience.  For spell-checkers, that thing going wrong is called the Cupertino Effect.

You have no doubt experienced the Cupertino Effect.  You slam your hands on your keyboard in rude approximation of a particular English word like cooperate.  Then you right-click on that scramble of letters to find the correct spelling.  You choose the first suggestion and continue your merry writing way. But the fates have not been kind to you!  The suggested word was not in fact the word you wanted!  You have been cursed by the Cupertino Effect!  Fie!  Alas!  Alack!

The Cupertino Effect got its name because early spell-checkers only had the hyphenated version of the word co-operation in them.  People who wrote 'cooperation' stumped the spell checker, which gave only a single suggestion:  the California town of Cupertino.  Thousands of people have been duped by this very mistake--including writers from the UN, the EU and NATO.

As electronic communication becomes ever more common, the Cupertino Effect will daunt us more and more.  Someone should make a blog detailing all the funny things that can happen to us because of it.  Oh wait, this is the interent and there are no new ideas.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Drink For The Muses

Monkeys do it.  College students do it.  Even gigantic elephants do it!  So why don't we do it?

Let's do it!  Let's get tipsy!

For our creativity, of course!  Lordly science has proved that a quaff of fermented potato juice can help the mind.

Recent research at the University of Chicago has started to explain why there may be a link between intoxication and creativity.  In what may be one of the simplest experimental set-ups I have ever read about, Andrew Jarsosz and his collaborators brought forty people into the lab to do a "Remote Associates Test", a common test of creative thinking.  Twenty of these lucky experimental subjects were given vodka.  The others were left quietly sober.  The tipsy people did better on the test of creativity than the dry ones.  Score one for the drunken artist!

Why should a drug that mildly poisons your brain also help you think?  Jarsosz et al suggest that drinking might help us get into what they call a divergent mode of thought, one which makes it easier to answer questions that require you to think creatively.

I am firmly to the coffee side of the coffee-alcohol-writer-continuum, so until Jarsosz and his friends prove that cracking open a beer can help blogs suddenly get popular, and novels suddenly become published, I am going to stick to my bean-based stimulant.

I read about this research on the excellent BPS Research Digest.  Boring name, fascinating blog.

The Worst Sport Of All History: Gander Pulling

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but boredom stands as invention's disreputable but really cool friend, who smokes cigarettes and cuts class, and dares invention to do stupid things that sometimes end up being really awesome.  Like jump off of snowy ramps on skis.  Or cover your entire body with tattoos.  Because, you know, what else are we going to do today?

But for every invention boredom makes that reaches silly-putty levels of awesomeness, ten or twenty must suck.  Like a Whoppi Goldberg Dinosaur Buddy Cop Movie.  Or like Gander Pulling.

What's Gander Pulling you ask yourself.  Just the worst sport any human has ever thought to do.  Worse than curling.  Less sensible than cricket.  More violent than lacrosse.

Gander Pulling, also creatively called Goose Pulling and Pulling the Goose, is an ancient blood sport played in England, Belgium, Netherlands, and the Chesapeake Colonies.  The preparation for the game is simple.

Take a wooden pole or a tree branch. Hang a goose on it upside-down.  Grease the goose's neck.  Get your friends together and jump on your horses.  Now you are ready to play!

The unlucky contestants would take turns riding by the unlucky goose, trying to part goose head from goose body.  What made this especially interesting for the terminally bored country population was that the goose was jealous of its life and tried to defend itself from decapitation.  It would writhe its hideously long neck, squirm from the riders' grasps, and probably emit annoying honks.  Riders sometimes had fingers and thumbs bitten off.  Some were even killed as the goose pulled them from their horses.  Which has to rank as one of the most undignified deaths.

But eventually the game would crown its champion, the one rider  finally man enough to pull the dreaded goose's neck from its goosey body, covering himself in a splatter of blood and earning himself--one goose.

Thousands of spectators might turn out to watch this dreadfully dumb game.  It's still played in some parts of the world, though the goose has been pre-killed as an olive branch to our pesky respect for animal well-being.

Next time you hear people say video games are violent, tell them about gander pulling.

I learned about this from David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, also the source for my post on Puritan pre-marital sex.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Learning Today: The World's Oldest Jokes

A stale joke is about as appetizing as a dead metaphor.  But for generations some jokes, no matter their groan-worthiness, have been passed from victim to victim like a kind of meme-based viral infection.  Take my wife--please.  A horse walks into a bar.  Why the long face?  The ten-inch pianist.  Sometimes I expect that the shame might get so bad that humanity just jumps off a bridge.

Would you believe that this has been going on for over three-thousand five hundred years?

That's when the oldest recorded gag joke was put down on a clay tablet in Mesopotamia.  Here's one of three ancient old knee-slappers orientalists have pulled from the sands of Iraq:
In(?) your mouth and your teeth (or: your urine)
constantly stared at you
the measuring vessel of your lord. (— What is it?)
(Answer:) Beer(!?).

The same tablet contains what is most likely the earliest Yo Mama joke, though only the middle of the joke remains, so it's of minor interest.

The collection of translations in the journal Iraq from which these jokes are taken also presents a dialogue between two friends (too fragmentary to be interesting to the non-expert) and a very promising set-up where a barber of evil, a harlot of evil, a scribe of evil and one unidentified professional woman (of evil?) argue with their clients.  I smell an Adult Swim series.

If you want antiquity to give you jokes that make sense, you have to jump forward about a millennium and a half to Rome.  The historian Mary Beard found an old Roman joke book that contains jokes that are actually amusing.  Two favorites jump out at me.
A barber, a bald man, and a bumbling man are taking a trip.  One night they have to sleep outside and they take turns looking after the luggage.  The barber gets bored during his watch so he shaves the bumbling man's head.  When the bumbling man is roused for his watch, he feels his head and thinks.  'Stupid barber.  He's woken the bald man instead of me.'

Here's another.
An absent-minded professor is asked to bring his friend two fifteen year old slaves.  He says, sure.  But if I can't find two fifteen year olds, will one thirty year old do?

Now that is comedy.  People have been laughing at absent-minded professors since Caesar.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Learning Today: The Secret World Of Puritan Sex Toys

Puritans are memorialized in pictures of belt-hatted men and women (even though they never wore belted-hats), in stories of the Thanksgiving turkey (though they didn't eat turkey on the first Thanksgiving), and in the John Winthrop we are forced to read in civics class (all we remember is that 'city on a hill' bit.)

But did you know that Puritans had sex, too? The proof is hard to find, but your humble blog-scholar has discovered it.

They had children! And children are caused by sex. Therefore the Puritans must have had sex.

Because of my ground-breaking discovery, today we're going to be looking at the sex practices of the Puritans.

This is a courting stick. It is not as hot as it sounds. If you were a young man who wanted to woo a young woman in Puritan New England, at some point you would go to the young woman's house. There you would be allowed to have a nice intimate conversation with her. You could talk about the bible, compliment her nose, and make all the promises of the most risque pastoral poems.

In front of the whole family.

The whole family would sit together--the young man far apart from the young woman. But you would be allowed your privacy. How? The courting stick. The stick was a hollow stick six to eight feet long with an earpiece at one end and a mouthpiece at the other. This would enable the man to say intimate promises to the young woman, without him getting dangerously close to her ear.

Because, you know, if you get close to her ear it's a little bit too sinful.

The second practice is the better-known rite of 'bundling.'

At some point in the courtship the two love-struck young people would be able to spend the night together.

But don't get too excited. These are the Puritans we're talking about here. The two lovebirds were separated in the bed with a special 'bundling board' made to discourage over-ambitious hanky-panky. Sometimes, the women's lower-half was bound together with a special 'bundling stocking' to make nocturnal access far more difficult.

The top half of the body, though, seemed to be fair game, based on this contemporary poem.

But she is modest, also chaste
While only bare from neck to waist,
And he of boasted freedom sings,
Of all above her apron strings.
But there's sense behind this strangeness. The Puritans believed that people should chose their spouses freely. So bundling and the courting stick allowed two young people the privacy to get to know one another, while ensuring that enough parental supervision went on to discourage pre-marital sex.

My source for today's post is David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Learning Today: The Electrical Venus, The Leyden Jar, and the Stupid Early History of Electricity

Take a boy. String him from the ceiling by silken threads. Charge him with static electricity. If the boy extends his hands he will attract brass fibers. If you touch him, you'll get an electric shock.

This sounds like the internet's latest improvement on planking. But it was actually an 18th Century experiment that helped forward humanity's understanding of electricity.

(This 'experiment' reminds me of an anecdote about Alexander the Great. Disbelieving reports of a liquid that would burn, the great conquerer covered a boy in 'liquid asphalt' and then set the poor urchin alight. This according to Strabo via Will Durant. Something about science and the torture of young children go together, I guess.)

But we shouldn't leave the electrically-charged boy hanging. What was the deal? In the middle of the 18th century, people knew electricity existed--but not exactly what it was or what it was good for. Legions of peritactic scientist showmen prowled the lyceums of Europe, demonstrating the properties of electricity by doing stupid tricks. They made people's hair stand on end, and amused them by shooting electric shocks from the tips of their fingers. In a popular trick called the Electrical Venus, a woman stood on an insulated platform. An enterprising gentleman leaned forward for a kiss--and received a shock. Humanity is a simple species.

These early magic tricks might seem an ignoble beginning of the study of electricity, but it was this same spirit of exploititive entertainment that introduced educated Europe to the Leyden jar, the first electrical capacitor. The Leyden jar was a way of 'storing' an electrical charge. The jar's inventor Ewald Georg von Kleist, gave himself such a vicious electric shock in the process of making the Leyden jar that he recommended that no one ever try to make a jar ever seriously folks don't try this at home I'm not joking, at the same time as he provided detailed instructions on how to make one. People made Leyden jars in faddish haste, and proceeded to give each other crippling electrical shocks to the amusement of all survivors.

But there was a problem--in the contemporary understanding of electricity, the Leyden Jar shouldn't have worked at all. The theory needed to be changed. And it was this new theory--brought into the world by Mr. 100 Dollar Bill himself, Ben Franklin, which is the reason why we have computers, blogs, and massage wands. But if it hadn't been for stupid parlor tricks like the hanging boy and the electrical venus, we wouldn't have electricity at all.

Almost all the facts in this post come from Patricia Fara's contribution to this week's episode of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg.