Thursday, December 18, 2014


Of course it would seem to be obvious why I picked this word to look into, given that I've illustrated it with the poster of the movie that has gained notoriety over the past few days. But life is a little weirder than that. And I am a little denser. I was actually beginning to write this post while I had the news on, and then, thinking it was going to maybe turn out to be a little thin, I googled the word "interview" just to see what would come up first. And only then did I realize that the news I had been watching about Sony pulling a movie that North Korea vehemently objected to--to put it mildly--had to do with a movie called "The Interview". Somehow the title hadn't registered till then.

The real reason I became interested in this word is that I was down in L.A. this past weekend, where my sister Julie was one of a few MFA candidates who gave readings from their work at Venice's Electric Lodge theatre. (She rocked it, of course.) While I was down there, I also went and heard a few other readings and presentations given by others at Antioch University, which were also interesting. One woman happened to give a short talk on The Art of the Interview. I like interviews, especially, for some reason, printed versions, like the Paris Review interviews, or the ones they do in Tin House. But I had never really thought about the word until this woman led us to consider it a little more closely. I won't plagiarize her material here, but I think the etymology is fair game.

The Electric Lodge

We all know what an interview is, right? One person asks another person questions. But the word originally comes from the Middle French entrevue, which according to the Online Etymology Dictionary is verbal noun coming out of s'entrevoir--"to see each other, visit each other briefly, have a glimpse of", the components being the French entre--between, and the Old French voir, to see. Intriguing, non? I think the French word recognizes how little is actually knowable of another person better than the English does. And the French had to borrow the word "interview" back when they needed the more brash sense of the English. Originally the English meant simply a face-to-face meeting or formal conference. That was in 1510. Journalists didn't get into the picture until somewhere around 1869, and this is first attested in American print. Somehow, this figures.
Again without going into the details of our lecturer's talk, we were led to think a lot about what is going on in an interview, which is basically a lot about power and control. A cat and mouse game. Who's holding the reins--the asker or the teller? If we submit to an interview, how much do we really want to reveal? And to what end?

Congratulations, Julie, and to all your Santa Ana cohort.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Yeah, I got a little sumpin' sumpin' for you. I started thinking about this word after reading Delores Hitchens Sleep with Strangers and then watching the Netflix streaming Welsh program Hinterland. Sumps turn out to be interesting places for mystery and crime stories. The sump in Delores Hitchens is an oil sump on Signal Hill in the middle of Long Beach, California. The sump in the episode of Hinterland that mentioned it was a watery one. Both had some secrets to reveal.

Obviously sumps are some kind of pits. But where does the word come from and what else can we learn about them?


Well, first of all a sump can be a lot of other things than the ones I've mentioned. If you are looking up sump images, most of them will be metal or plastic as these days, we may first associate a sump with cars. In this case it's the oil reservoir in the internal combustion engine of a car. Sumps come in handy in mines, where water is accumulated at the bottom of a mine shaft. It can be a pond of water reserved for salt works. It can be just a pool or pond of dirty water. In fact, although I hadn't connected it before, we also have the sump pump, which removes unwanted water from basements. A sump, as far as I can tell, is a repository of unwanted or semi-unwanted things.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that sump first came on the scene in the mid fifteenth century to mean a swamp or morass. It comes from the middle Dutch somp or the Middle Low German sump and goes back to the hypothesized ProtoIndoeuropean for "spongy". Our present meaning of "a pit to collect water" is from the 1650s. And that sump pump, first mentioned in 1884, was originally used in mines, not family basements.

The great slightly creepy photo is by Alfred T. Palmer. It was taken in 1927 and is entitled "OIL SUMP AT DRILLING RIG, SIGNAL HILL, LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA". You can view a few more of his evocative images HERE.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Washington Post's fun quiz on Pantone's color of the year.

Name this color:

Why is this important? Well, you want to be fashion forward, don't you? And how are you going to do that if you don't know the color that Pantone has decided will be 2015's color of the year?

Pantone Inc. is a corporation out of New Jersey which has a famous color standardization system called the Pantone Matching System. Apparently, every year they try to figure out what the next 'color of the year' will be. Wonkblog at the Washington Post has a quiz up to see if you can figure out past colors of the year based on how much they lived up to the hype. Online quizzes are the most fun if they ridicule mercilessly for being  wrong, and this is a very good quiz. I can testify to that.

Oh, you will have to hit the link to the quiz to find out the name of the color for 2015. The only hint I can give you is that it has a "full-bodiness like the cooking wine" without being overpowering.

Or, I imagine, inebriating.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


For some reason, this word came up on an episode of New Tricks, the British mystery series about old codgers solving old cases. I associate the word with the upper American Midwest, so this was somewhat surprising. I also associate it with the children's book Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandberg, which I either never read or was so unimpressed with that it has left no record upon my consciousness. It's quite possible that I would like it a lot more now, as the nostalgia factor of its content would mean more. Maybe.

I know that most people who happen upon this blog will already know what a rutabaga is, but it isn't something that seems to have made its way into the California cuisine that I grew up with with any frequency. Or at all, really.

I do know it is some kind of root vegetable, but how people use it is pretty much a mystery to me. Time to find out more.


Well, as pretty much every website I looked at seems to agree, the rutabaga is a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. Some  say that this cross was done intentionally by a Swiss botanist named Gaspard (Caspar) Bauhin, while others think he was merely the one to describe it. Wikipedia doesn't connect him to the rutabaga, but it does say that his principal contribution to science was in his description of genera and species.

I also learned in passing of the mysterious sounding "triangle of U". It turns out that this is simply a theory about how three ancient plants from the brassica (cabbage) family evolved and combined to make some common modern vegetable and seed plants. It was named after the guy who thought of it, a Korean-Japanese botanist named Woo Jang-choon, whose name translated into Japanese through its characters became U Nagaharu. Here's a picture of the triangle:

But essentially it's all about the relation and ancestry of things like turnips, cabbage, mustard and yes, rutabaga.

Rutabaga, it turns out, is a lot like a turnip, except its flesh is yellow,  not white, and it isn't quite as moist.It is popular in the northern climes of the U.S., but in fact a lot of it is grown in California. Its name comes from a Swedish dialect, rot meaning root and bagge meaning bag. However, as with much else about this plant, there are other versions. Wikipedia, for instance, tells us that the etymology from Swedish actually means 'ram's root', possibly because it is used commonly as livestock feed. It goes by a lot of names, but we'll just stick to the English language versions. Americans and Canadians may be familiar with rutabaga, but many English speaking people just call them swedes. The Scots have their own name for them, calling them neeps or tumshies, and the southeastern part of the region calls them bagies. They even use them in their traditional Burns Supper, in celebration of the life of the poet Robert Burns, where they play their part in the menu of haggis, tatties and neeps.

Popular in the cuisine of several cultures, rutabaga under any name is apparently not held in high esteem in France or Germany, and is thought of as more or less fodder for animals. Several sources say that this is because it was the only food available to people enduring great privation during the First and Second World Wars and bears unpleasant associations for many. However those wars are a long time ago now, and maybe it's time for this very versatile root to make a comeback.

The illustration that begins this piece is from the original frontispiece to the 1922 first edition of Rootabaga Tales. The artists are Maud and Miska Petersham. Project Gutenberg has a copy of the book free to peruse online. I think that whether or not you like Sandberg's tales is largely a matter of taste, or so I gather from the mixed reviews of the book on GoodReads, but in any case, you should take a moment to skim it for the wonderful illustrations.

Here's a link to info about the rutabaga drawing which comes from France in 1883. The humble root bag was not so despised back then, I think.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


 After being away last week, I went to the Penny University discussion group Monday evening and was happy to see that there was a young man visiting and sharing his understanding of biodynamic gardening.  I'm not a gardener, although I have on occasion planted a small plot of vegetables. But I have a long history with the subject that Joe was speaking of, as during my college days, I knew several people actively involved with the farm and garden project at UCSC, which was the direct result of the appearance of Alan Chadwick there, an eccentric genius from England who not only taught students the virtues of biodynamic gardening, but also inducted them into a rather wider and deeper and  more esoteric world than that which most young Californians were experiencing. And I say that even though this was the seventies, when the Summer of Love was not a distant memory, at least not quite yet.

Chadwick's antecedent was Rudolf Steiner, who, I learned last night only gave one lecture on his biodynamic vision, though there are many books which elucidate other parts of his philosphy. Steiner himself harkened back to Goethe. One thing I liked about the evening was seeing Paul Lee, who has held the banner for so much of this stuff despite many travails, finding a young student who himself is teaching still younger students in the lore of this path. Although my head was spinning after so many people chiming in on all this last night, and though I am the kind of person who zaps a quick lunch in the microwave, that doesn't mean that the significance of such moments are lost on me.

One of the points that was being made last night was about how the care of the soil and the living organisms residing in it contributes to the well-being of people who eat this food and basically live this life cycle. The idea of farming in this view is a closed system, where the animals that are nurtured by the soil contribute to it through their waste, so an endless fertile loop is in place. Somehow, nematodes came up.

Do you know about nematodes? I'd heard the word, I suppose. But it's quite strange that I know so little about what this website terms "the most numerous multicellular animals on earth". Also according to the same website, nematode is a combination of the Greek words "nematos" or thread and "eidos", or form. They also tell us that "tube-within-a-tube" is a convenient way to think about their body structure. This is reminding me that our guest told us that sometimes the only way to distinguish between nematodes is by the structure of their mouths.

The discussion immediately turned to destructive nematodes, as some of them are parasitic. But in this case our speaker was talking about beneficial nematodes, which aid in breaking things down and benefiting the soil.

I probably did not need to know about the nematode that commonly resides in the placenta of the sperm whale. Placentonema gigantissimum: eight feet long and as thick as a garden hose. They get inside us too. In fact, they get everywhere. But luckily for us, most nematodes are microscopic.

Friday, November 21, 2014

(Un)Civil Asset Forfeiture

You know my rule here, right? One instance of ignorance maybe rises to the surface of my attention, but when a couple of sightings or citings come along in a row, I usually feel compelled to pursue the matter. That's the case here. Thanks to Slate, I saw this informative and entertaining piece by comedian John Oliver a few weeks ago.

Now I knew and didn't know this. I had heard that the powers that be have seized a tremendous number of assets in the drug bust game, but until I watched this segment, I had no idea that the police could seize assets simply on the assumption of criminal activity, and actual conviction isn't a requirement. For some reason, they can simply keep some of the money and property they seize.

Sounds pretty bad, right? But a week or so ago, I learned of another kind of assets seizure that in some ways seems even worse. This is the way that law enforcement habitually treats the property of the homeless, which is sometimes taken away when left even briefly unattended and often not given back. As of August of this year, the destruction of that property is illegal in California without giving the homeless person a  fair chance to reclaim it. As an activist lawyer came to our weekly discussion group on his way to a homeless teach-in, it became clear that the law is not always adhered to yet.

Some people might think that the small amount of belongings that a homeless person manages to carry around with them through their day is not very worthwhile, but in my view, taking away every worldly possession someone has is a lot worse than seizing, say, a yacht.

According to SF Gate, here's what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had to say about it:

"The government may not take property like a thief in the night; rather, it must announce its intentions and give the property owner a chance to argue against the taking."

Here's an article from McClatchyDC on how the homeless people in Sacramento filed claims for the return of their property. It was a tactic described to us by our activist/lawyer visitor, although he did tell us that people don't usually get their property back but some form of compensation, as seems to be the case in the Sacramento scenario. And while we're at it, here is his blog, called Living My Story, which is a lot about what's going on in Baldwin Park, California. He goes by the moniker PC there.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


Somehow I seem to have gotten on to a theme of gadgets. I was watching something on the local PBS station and as is customary when a show ends a bit before the hour mark, there was a short clip. This time it was one from a series called the History Quiz, where people are given strange objects from the past and try to figure out what they were used for. Here's what they were asked to look at in this episode.

So a densiometer measures the shade coverage by the leaves of trees above. It's not to be confused with a densitometer, which Google continually wants to steer me to and which has a variety of meanings, but which seems to mainly have to do with optical density, or how much light passes through or is absorbed by  an object. Yeah, let's not go too far down that road right now.

As the little clip shows, the densiometer, by measuring shade, can tell various things about an ecosystem, including its health. The one in the clip is pretty fancy. But guess what, kids? You can make your own with stuff you have at home. It won't look like this:

 But it still looks pretty fun.