Monday, March 30, 2015

hashtag--or, Beware the octothorp, my son

photo by Charles Hutchins
One of the lighter moments of the Anita Hill talk I attended last month was when the presenter, a revered professor on the campus, told people they could join in on some online conversation at "number sign".... A gentle wave of amusement went through the crowd at the realization that she was actually referring to a Twitter address. And to tell the truth even I, techno last adapter that I am, was a little surprised that she hadn't come across the term "hashtag" in her academic exposure to social media. (She had reached Anita Hill by the simple expedient of an email, after all.) But she had the good graces to laugh along with everyone else at not being up to speed, and so the moment passed more or less without incident.

But it got me to wondering about the term "hashtag", how long it has been with us, and what uses it had in previous times. I thought it would be a short post.

"Hashtag" can be traced all the way back to its ancient sources in, uh, 2007. Apparently, it's pretty well documented that Chris Messina (the open source advocate, not the actor on The Mindy Project)  wondered if the pound or number symbol on the keyboard wouldn't do as well as any as a means of gathering comments into groups, and gradually or maybe not so gradually this became a convention, despite some resistance by people who didn't know an easy fix when they saw one. 

Of course,there's a bit of conflation going on here, as the symbol is really just a hash mark (which Wikipedia tells me is the common term in the British Isles and also that "hash" is a corruption of "hatch", as in crosshatching), the tag being the part that follows the symbol. But, as Paul McCartney said, let it be.

photo by Quinn Dombrowski

As I'm sure has crossed your mind by now, the symbol predates the term by a long shot, and has a lot more meanings than even occurred to me as I started out here. It is the number sign, the pound sign, on a slant, the sharp sign in music, and is used in such far flung fields as mining, chess and scrabble. I liked Wikipedia's example of how it is used in linguistic syntax, where it denotes a sentence that is "semantically ill-formed, though grammatically well-formed. For instance, "#The toothbrush is pregnant" is a grammatical sentence, but the meaning is odd."

Apparently, the actual symbol has its roots in Rome, and in the term libra pondo, which translates into English as 'a pound in weight'. According to an article in Mental Floss, we take the name for the weight from the pondo, but the abbreviation (lb.) from the libra, which as all good astrologists know means "scales" or "balance".

So far, so good. But how does lb. become #, you ask? According to a short piece in the New Yorker by Keith Houston, we can put it down to "the rushed pens of scribes". He tells us that in standard abbreviations, a bar was often cast through the letters, I suppose in a way similar to our putting a period at the end of them, to indicate that they are abbreviations. Interestingly, this bar is called tittle or tilde. typesetters had a standard piece of type with the bar in it, but harried scribes were a little sloppier about it, and the symbol became more abstract. As he tells us about the images below, the left is none other than Isaac Newton's version of the barred lb., while the right is how it appeared in print.

Othmer Library of Chemical History, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Now you'd think that with all these names and meanings floating around, we wouldn't need another term, wouldn't you? But apparently the scientists at the Bell Laboratories disagreed. According to, when they modified the telephone keypad in the early sixties, they felt that they needed to give it a more official name, and so came up with "octothorp". "Octo" has to do with the eight ends of the figure, the 'thorpe', well, there are, shall we say, rumors. Interestingly, Blogger doesn't recognize the word octothorp and suggests I use "proctor" instead. It's true that my typing might mangle the spelling of the word, but that's a bridge too far even for me.

And knowing now how these things take off, please don't start calling this: # the proctor sign.

I'm begging you.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jiminy Cricket!

Cricket at Marylebone Field, 1790s -wikimedia
I can't resist writing about this, as it is so odd. Last night I had a dream which I'll spare you the details of, except for one. There was a disembodied voice that was ranting on because it was outraged that people did not seem to know that the word for cricket, the game, and cricket, the insect were not related! Now as far as I know, I have never thought consciously about this question, nor do I have a big fascination with either crickets or cricket, although I like crickets, love Jiminy Cricket, and thought the book Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, which has a little to do with playing cricket in New York, was pretty good, although maybe not quite the great shakes it was made out to be at the time.

Nor do I spend all my waking hours, let alone my sleeping ones, trying to think up new ideas for this blog, as I have more than enough ignorance to keep going for quite some time, believe me. Still, I woke up wondering, just how reliable is this dream voice? I'm well aware that dreams tend to speak metaphorically rather than literally, but what was the point of ranting on about this if it wasn't true? So I decided I would find out.


They are two different words. For some reason, I thought maybe the word for cricket the game came from India, although as far as I know, the sport is thoroughly British. But no. Both words are European. And actually both words may come from an Old French word, namely criquet.

Hang on, you say, doesn't that mean they do share a common origin? Apparently not. There are two Old French meanings of criquet. One comes from criquer and means to creak, rattle or crackle, and has according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, an "echoic" origin. This is the criquet that gave English the name for the insect in about the 14th century.

Wellington College, circa 1900-wikipedia

The name for the game is a little more in doubt but this Old French criquet means goal post or stick, and may go back to the  Middle Dutch/ or Middle Flemish word  cricke, and be related to the root word for crutch.

I'm still not sure just why the dream world felt it was important to call this all to my attention, but it does give me a chance to write down a quote from Antonio Machado, which  I found a couple of days ago as the epigraph at the beginning of Stuart Dybek's story collection, The Coast of Chicago:

De todo la memoria, solo vale
el don preclare de evocar los suenos.

Out of the whole of memory, there's one thing
worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Think outside the box

The cereal box, that is. Oddly enough, the humble cereal box has come to my attention several times in the last few days and none of them really having anything to do with cereal.
The first instance was in the midst of a novel I am reading called Beginner's Greek by James Collins. The novel has very little to do with cereal or boxes, but there is a recurring mention of a half-crazed senior executive at the investment firm the protagonist works at, who has a crazy scheme to monetize all those cereal box tops that people save to get points or prizes or donate philanthropically. As I'm not an investment banker or anything close, I don't know yet if the scheme will turn out to be crazy genius or just crazy crazy, but I expect I'll find out.

Next, cereal boxes appeared on Collagemama's Hearty Breakfast Blog. You may be thinking that cereal would pretty naturally come into play on a breakfast blog, but actually Nancy is talking about cubicles and cereal boxes as forts. She links on to a cool looking blog called Seize the Absurd, which has many illustrations of said cereal box forts and which you should definitely check out for your own defensive strategies.

There is also this short excerpt from Family Guy which may illustrate some of the shortcomings of this idea:

I maybe didn't think too much about all this until last night when I read Bookwitch's latest blog, which was called Through the Cereal Box. Guess what it's about?

Watching eclipses with a cereal box. Here's a short video that shows you how. For next time.

So there we have it. The cereal box as currency, military defense and scientific instrument. I'd like to say that I've added to the stream of creative uses, but all I've done is develop a  worrying new penchant for eating cereal straight out of the box.

photo by Dan Taylor at Flicr

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Star light, star blight

Santa Cruz, California tidepool--wikimedia

I happened to be looking at an old copy of one of our local weeklies, and so came across this distressing news. Apparently many of the sea stars (or starfish as we always called them) along the Pacific Coast are having a hard time of it, suffering a wasting disease, which has been mysterious for some time, but which there is now a hypothesis about. Scientists postulate that it may be a virus called a densovirus that is doing the damage. You can find a whole lot more about sea star wasting disease at this UCSC website.

The results for the poor sea stars are not pleasant, neither to experience nor behold. I'll spare you the intermediary details, but the end result, as Brendan D. Bane describes it in his Good Times article, is that the sea star "deliquesces into disorganized pulp". And, although die-offs have happened before, the scale of this one is unprecedented, with twenty sea star species affected so far and covering a range from Alaska to Mexico. We're talking millions of sea star remains here, people.

The article interested me for a couple of reasons. First, who doesn't like starfish or would wish them to come to harm? Well, unless you happen to be their prey, I guess, but even here, sea stars often are key to the health of a small ecosystem, culling creatures like mussels and sea urchins to keep their populations within sustainable limits.

An ochre sea star eating a mussel in Central California-Wikimedia

But a secondary reason came up at my book group last night, where people began talking about the health of the Monterey Bay, which apparently has dead zones where no living organisms exist, caused in part by poorly oxygenated waters being kicked up from the deeps. Niina Heikinnen reports in Scientific American's Climatewire that though there's long been awareness of the vulnerability of coral reefs, it's taken longer to understand the vulnerability of the Pacific Coast of North America.  My friends also brought up the starving seal pups that have been washing up in skyrocketing numbers this year in the Bay. Warmer waters mean that the parent seals have to go out to deeper waters for food, where the baby seals can't follow them. I know, I know--you wish I hadn't told you.

So the case of the wasting starfish seem less like an anomaly and more like part of a larger ominous trend. The densovirus has been found in seventy year old dried sea stars kept in museum cases--it can exist in apparently healthy sea stars, which act as a kind of host for it. But factors in the modern environment, like pollution, warming waters and so on may be making it harder for sea stars to fight off the virus.

The Monterey Bay still looks beautiful. But as with much in life, things can be quite different--under the surface.

"USA-Santa Cruz-Natural Bridges State Beach-4" by Eugene Zelenko-wikimedia

Friday, March 6, 2015

Laura Shirley Brunton Atterbury August 10, 1925-March 1, 2015

My Aunt Shirley died last Sunday, after a long decline into Alzheimer's disease. As some of you may have experienced in dealing with this disease, much of one's thought and attention become taken up with the illness, and for me at least, the end of that concern has drawn a veil back from her life as a whole, most of which was quite unlike the past few years. As I was lucky enough to have known my aunt my entire life and to be able to call her one of the foundational figures in it, I thought I might take a little time here to jot down some personal thoughts that are not going to find their way into her more formal obituary.

My mother and her sister grew up living a fairly privileged life in Santa Monica, especially considering that much of the country was, during some of it, experiencing the more devastating effects of the Great Depression. My grandfather was truly a self-made man, having grown up very poor, but, by dint of hard work, become a lawyer in Los Angeles. I won't say he and my grandmother provided their daughters with every luxury, but they certainly provided them with every opportunity they could manage.

My mother was no slouch academically, but my aunt was the scholar in the family and went on to Pomona, Radcliffe and the Sorbonne. She early on showed an aptitude for both language and music, and maintained her interest and study of both. Even in middle age she would spend her Saturdays taking the bus across L.A. to study with her beloved piano teacher Erica. She wasn't too keen on performance, but submitted to the ordeal occasionally and at the end of her active life regularly played for retirement home audiences in a more informal way.

She had a keen interest in all the arts and literature, which she readily shared with us. Lest I give you the impression that she was overly serious, though, I must hasten to say that she was among the funnest people it has ever been my pleasure to know. She could tell a good and funny story herself, and she saw the humor in many, many things. She is one of the few people I know, for instance, who consistently laughed out loud at comic strips.Even as little children we didn't laugh as much.

She had a great capacity for friendship. She was the kind of person who could meet someone on a plane or a tour and become friends for life. As she didn't like to drive, she rode the bus to work in downtown Los Angeles for many years, and had a whole host of friends from that part of her life alone. She and her friend Ross were both opera fans, for instance, and somehow even I came to know of Ross's passion for the Ring Cycle.

For as long as we lived in Southern California, we would frequently visit my aunt and uncle's apartment in Westchester, where we were endlessly entertained. I think it can go two ways with childless aunts and uncles--they can find their siblings' children incomprehensible or they can embrace them as their own. We were a happy but somewhat chaotic family and I'm sure they sometimes must have felt that they had witnessed a rampage after our departure. But we would go into the spare room and bang away at the piano, look out on the world through a pair of nice binoculars, fumble around with the concertina and pretty much whatever else took our fancy. I don't remember there ever being a 'hands off' feeling when it came to their belongings. In the evening my aunt would sit down at the upright piano and play tunes from a songbook she had and we'd all go sailing off on "Camptown Races" or "Frankie and Johnny" or "O, Dem Golden Slippers" together. As I've implied, she could have been a highbrow, but she liked highbrow, lowbrow and pretty much all the brows in between.

The Grahams are a liberal Democratic bunch but my mom and Shirley grew up as staunch Republicans. My dad's point of view wore away at my mother's stance till she had come round to some of his thinking, but my aunt remained a Republican till the end of her life. What I am struck by in my aunt was her ability to hold her own position and yet still get on civilly with people who did not hold it. Unlike our family, she did not really enjoy talking about politics. She did not relish the battle. I think she valued people on other terms than their positions.

Aunt Shirley was a very loyal person. Some of her decisions in life might have struck people as adding difficulty but I'm sure she didn't view it that way. As I've said, she didn't like driving, but she inherited a big old Packard Clipper from my grandmother and though life would have been easier for her with a smaller car, she kept the Packard in excellent condition and drove it to Santa Monica for church every Sunday for years. She and my uncle, who died early, had bought a house in Oceanside, and it had been their dream to retire there. So, although she had many friends in Los Angeles, she decided to move down there in loyalty to that shared dream. Her nieces have sometimes lamented that decision, which made it hard to visit as much as we would have liked, but I don't think my aunt ever did. She of course went on to make many friends there. There are some people who are at home everywhere.

I was talking to a mutual friend of my aunt's and mine to let her know of my aunt's passing and she said, I would come away from talking with Shirley and feel I had such a black heart.' This wasn't because my aunt felt that way about her. It was because my aunt lacked the snarky, sarcastic and cynical quality that so many of us have nowadays (I include myself.) Being in her company had a way of making you realize that that wasn't always a gift, it could be a limitation.

My aunt's first and best friend was her big sister, my mother, or 'Caro' as she called her. My mom sometimes felt guilty about not being as attentive to an adoring younger sister as she might have been when they were children. But their friendship only grew stronger as the years went by. Toward the end of their lives they would call each other frequently, seeking help with the crossword puzzles they both liked to do. If perchance there is a heaven, I have an image of it now. They are doing crossword puzzles together, but now both of them can see, hear... and remember.

I'll add some other photos as they become available.

Updated to add a link to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times

Friday, February 27, 2015

I dreamed I saw Anita Hill last night...Darshan, part two

Actually, it wasn't a dream. I really did see Anita Hill last night. She had been invited to Santa Cruz to speak during the university's 50th anniversary celebration. Not surprisingly, it was an enormously popular event, filling one hall, and overflowing to another nearby where the event was livestreamed. By some good fortune and despite being far from first in line, I found myself sitting in the third row.

I am trying to remember just what my awareness was at the time of Hill's testimony during the hearings on whether Clarence Thomas should be chosen for the Supreme Court. I know I was aware of them, and the iconic images of her testimony are with me as much as the next person of that era, but I'm not quite sure why, as I know I didn't have cable and I did work, so wasn't watching the hearings during the day.  I suppose they were recapped on whatever version of the PBS Newshour was going at that time. So, though the general sense of the hearings remain with me, some of the actual details and players are pretty hazy. I hadn't remembered that Joe Biden had chaired the committee, for instance.

More than my own personal sense of identification with Hill, though, I was interested to go because women I know were remembering and getting fired up about that memory. They reinforced the feeling that Hill gave in her talk that though the battle may have been lost, in the longer view, things weren't that simple. Hill's own sense of what was going on with the men on the Senate judiciary committee is that they were handicapped in their understanding of how sexual harassment actually was relevant to this hearing. Sexual harassment had been declared illegal, but the world still hadn't come to terms with how to treat the perpetrators. Hill said later in the talk that it's an issue that in some ways we are still struggling with now. As my friend pointed out afterwards, though, ignorance is no excuse (and don't I know that better than anybody?) and the fact that, despite being ill equipped to weigh in on the subject, they refused also to hear testimony from people who had actually studied the whys and wherefores of sexual harassment, makes them something worse than merely naive. More on what Hill said last night can be read in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

For this friend and others, Hill's testimony was a pivotal moment in their lives, because it meant that people began talking to each other about it and about their own experiences of workplace harassment.

Several years ago now, I wrote a post on the word darshan, which is an Indian word conveying in Gretchen Rubin's understanding "the beneficial glow that comes from being in the presence of a great spiritual leader (or holy place or object). Merely looking at such a person – and even better, receiving his or her glance – bestows a blessing."

At the time, I was thinking about movie stars and other celebrities as sort of our replacement for the Indian pantheon of gods and understanding better why people are so drawn to them. But last night I think I understood the concept just a little better when I realized that all those people had come to that hall to receive darshan from Anita Hill's presence. It wasn't because of money or power or any of the usual things people want to get close to to see if it might somehow magically wear off. It was because she, I'm sure an ordinary fallible woman like everybody else in many ways, had also at a key moment become a vehicle for truth. She had made something available to us by her testimony that we had not, in some crucial way had access to before. And despite speaking about difficult issues, there was a lightness and transparency to her that was evident.

And if by chance you  happened to be sitting in the third row, at the end of the event, you were treated to a form of darshan that we never got from the hearings. You got a chance to see Anita Hill's gorgeous smile.

Obviously this was at Sundance, but you get the idea...

Saturday, February 21, 2015


I traveled a lot over the last week or so, in one of those odd swells of time when you have multiple significant events to attend in multiple places. It was looking forward to all of the events, several of which were culminations of a kind for various people close to me. But I wasn't looking forward to the travel, as public transportation isn't seamless here in the greater Bay Area. It's usually just a matter of waiting an extra hour here or there when you miss a bus or train by five minutes, so, though not exactly painful, it does get a bit wearing. Still a good book and a stoical attitude can go a long way.

The events were all wonderful as it turned out but the travels were, well, not. I lost my backpack in San Francisco, which was of course my own fault, but which happened in part because of a ghost San Francisco muni train which kept saying it had arrived, or actually, was 'departing' when it wasn't even there. I came back to Santa Cruz on possibly the worst day at the worst time, which was Valentines Day, the beginning of a warm holiday weekend, and at the end of an already long journey, it literally took me an hour to make what is normally about a ten minute bus trip because the roads were packed to the bursting point. And on my final return trip I was actually making a list of all the subpar things that had happened on the four trips I'd just made when the train I was on broke down in Redwood City. It didn't get better from there.

But of course, travel and travail are closely associated in our minds, and not just by sound. The good think about long trips is that they don't usually leave much of a mark once you get through them. But I started thinking about words like harrowing, ordeal and travail as a result of all this, and travail in particular caught my interest.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the derivation of travail takes the standard course back to Latin. In English it means 'toil or labor', the Old French of the same spelling has all that and more, including 'arduous journey', but the further back we go the closer we get to torture and torment ending in an obscure reference to something called a tripalium, which is supposed to have been a Late Latin instrument of torture, tripalis meaning "three stakes". However no one seems to have left a record describing it or its uses, and for that we should perhaps count ourselves lucky.

The word travel which originated in the late 14th century comes from travailen 'to make a journey', and of course goes straight back to travail's Latin roots. I liked what the Online Etymology had  to say about it:

The semantic development may have been via the notion of "go on a difficult journey," but it also may reflect the difficulty of any journey in the Middle Ages. 

As with travel itself, looking up words takes you on some unexpected byways. I came across a website previously unknown to me called Language Log.The rather rambling entry included a bit about the word travail, but I am indebted to it for a different reason. It has introduced me to a line from T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose, which I believe will in future be my constant invocation when blogging here:

"Think! Great Powers of Pedantry Assist Me Now!"

And I suppose I should really get to the book as well...

(Oh, that's Goya's  A Pilgrimage to San Isidro that heads up this cheery post. But I bet you guessed at least the artist already.)