Thursday, February 24, 2011


It's a great word, isn't it? It applies to so many situations. Think of the sentence, "Enough of your malarkey". You can substitute 'nonsense' or 'bullshit' or probably half a dozen others, but none of them strikes quite the same tone of playful correction.

So what is malarkey? Where does it come from? Let's find out. I'm going to guess it's Irish, but that's only because I can imagine my Irish-American grandmother using it.


Well, I'm drawing a blank on this one. It seems to have come out of America in the 1920s, at least that's the first it appeared in print. But no one is going to stake a claim on where it comes from. It looks like it might well come from someone's name, but no one seems to know who the nonsense spinning Malarkey might have been. I'm disappointed. It is still such a prevalent word here that I actually heard it used on television as I was typing this, I think by a Republican ridiculing the efforts of Wisconsin protesters.

It's a great word, regardless, and obviously non-partisan.        

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Have you been galvanized yet?

In the (not so new) episode of Breaking Bad I watched the other night, galvanization proved key to the story line. It had something to do with using galvanized metal, which apparently included coins. The word has also recently gained (pardon the pun) currency, reflecting, I think, something that's abroad in our times. A headline reads "Egypt protesters galvanized". Obama uses the word in a speech. A friend says to me last night "It's good to be galvanized." How often do people say that? And is being galvanized a good thing?

I think I know the rough meaning of the second kind of galvanized. It would be something like, strengthened, charged up, fortified. But what does the original word mean and where does it come from?

Well, it doesn't look to me like those galvanized Egytian protesters actually underwent a process similar to that used to galvanize coins. Galvanization is, or was, an electrochemical process. In our current lingo, it usually means a process in which a thin layer of metal is added to another in order, usually, to prevent rusting. Apparently, metals which sit next to each other don't like each other, or, perhaps like each other a little too well. Galvanic corrosion can occur, with ions jumping back and forth and god knows what all else. Think it  doesn't affect you? That's what the Statue of Liberty said. Iron and copper are apparently a 'galvanic couple', which simply means one acts upon the other. Though Gustave Eiffel (you'll know his tower) and others had anticipated this problem, the shellac meant to keep these two apart within Lady Liberty eroded over time and a giant renovation project helped our torchbearer in the 1980s. These days, it's more common for galvanization to be done by 'hot-dipping' the thing you want protected in a bath of molten zinc, but the original process used an electric current passing through a conductive bath, which caused the zinc to form a thin protective layer on the steel or iron object that would otherwise be subject to rust.

I don't know why the British Royal Navy crops up so frequently on this blog. True, my mom was in the navy, but we're Americans. Nevertheless, another example of galvanic corrosion comes from the days when Samuel Pepys was admiralty secretary. No one could figure out why bolt-heads and the like were mysteriously disintegrating. Pepys allowed the lead sheath of the ship H.M.S. Alarm (always the evocative names, these British ships) to be taken off, and replaced with copper. But the copper did not prevent the same effect from happening to the majority of the nails holding the sheath to the wooden hull, though some did. In the Case of the Mysterious Non-Corroding Nailheads, it turned out that some of the nails had never been unwrapped from the paper they came in on, and this protective layer prevented corrosion. The moral? Sometimes, laziness pays off.

But back to those galvanized Egyptians. And apparently, Wisconsinites. These people were not galvanized like coins or naval ships or symbols of liberty. They were galvanized like dead frogs. That's not an insult. Galvanize, when used about people, means "to shock into action, to stir". Luigi Galvani managed to stimulate dead frog's nerve cells to the point where they still twitched. It's maybe not the most flattering portrait of a galvanized electorate--or potential electorate--but in a pinch, it will do.

Galvani was on the losing side of a big debate going on in his times. As a vitalist, he believed that life could not be reduced to mere bio-chemical reactions, and was apparently trounced by his peer and opponent, Alessandro Volte. (You've heard of a volt, right?) Volte thought that everything could be explained without reference to a life principle. It was in response to Galvani's assertions that Volte developed the voltaic pile, which was the first battery.

I am no stranger to vitalism, as it happens. One of the leaders of a discussion group I've been attending for many years, the Penny University, has strong vitalist leanings. Vitalism, as I've come to understand it, is kind of the underground, back alley view of science. It's a renegade. It hangs out with many other suspect practices, like herbalism, midwifery, and probably drumming. It is so outcast that I was hardpressed to find a positive piece on vitalism today. But then I remembered that one of the leaders of the Penny might have written about it himself. And sure enough, I found it  here.

Galvani was wrong about why the frog's leg moved. His friend and rival Volte still named his battery after him, he got a mention in a rather famous novel by one Mary Shelley, and he's even got a crater on the moon. Sometimes it pays to be wrong.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Good Day for Liars

I promise that the ignorance will be on display again shortly. But thanks to a meme from Kathleen Kirk of Wait!I Have a Blog?!, instead, I have a quiz for you. Which of these five statements is true? (There is only one.)If you want, you can post your answer below. If you already know the answer, as some of you might, please try to leave some room for guessing. All will be revealed before I put up the next post.

A. I once spent a long night at the police station after what began as an innocent evening of got a little out of control.

B. My great-great-great uncle is Alexander Graham Bell.

C. During a stay in Paris, I had a brief but tempestous fling with a French mime. It ended with my departure from the City of Light, due to lack of communication.

D. At one point in my checkered past, I was a member of an international smuggling ring.

E. I have a Swiss bank account, for reasons you don't need to know about.

To complete the meme, I must tag five others, and this is always difficult, as I'd hate to give anyone a sense of obligation about the whole thing. Still, it is a form of publicity, so try and look at it that way, and only do this if it sounds fact if I didn't tag you and it sounds fun, let me know, and I'll pass it along here.

The rules:

1. Link back to the blogger who awarded you.
2. Display the graphic from the award creator.
3. Post five facts, four of which must be lies and
4. Pass the award to five other bloggers who should follow these rules.

Tagged, then, are

I. Leslie's eat.sing.ride where she talks about all of these aspects of her multi-faceted life and which she's currently 'broadcasting' from Hawaii.

II.Inspirations from Glenna, who seems very serene for a gun-tottin', dog lovin' PTA mom from Texas, and who I think writes excellent book reviews.

III. Sean Patrick Reardon's Mindjacker blog. Sean's been lying a bit low at the moment, so I hope all's well with him in the chilly east, and that he's just holed up working on his next novel.

IV.Absolutely*Kate's At the Bijou. A*K and I have gotten to know each other a bit lately through taking part in various story challenges that have come our way, largely through the above mentioned Mr. Reardon. She may be too busy running the Fab Feb Film Fest over at her place to take part, but you should check it out. She's got a swingin' Valentine's Day tale up right now.

V.Finally, I'll tag a blog that's new to me since the holiday season, Jen's Book Thoughts. Jen was my not so secret Santa at a bloggers holiday exchange, and boy did I rake in the loot. Jen likes crime. Lots and lots of crime. Crime readers of the female persuasion particularly should check out her "Most Wanted" wall.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Now Playing...

...At the Bijou.

And stay tuned over there for the Rat Pack Revue, which will feature a few familiar names...well, familiar to some of you.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


This is a somewhat different post than normal. I've used or at least heard the word 'smokescreen' many times, and presumably knew what the meaning was in context. A smokescreen is kind of a diversionary tactic. Something that hides what's really going on.

But not once, when I read or employed the word smokescreen did I envision this:

It's interesting to think what we do see in our minds when we use metaphorical terms. I think I get a wisp of smoke in their somewhere, but it is certainly not a plume of smoke so dense as to totally obscure the field of vision.
Tanks are relatively new in the long history of war. So is war really where the term 'smokescreen' came from? And does it predate the armored vehicle? Let's find out.

Well, it's fairly recent, although smoke as a metaphor of deception goes back quite a good ways further. But according to the very reliable Online Etymology Dictionary, smokescreen has been used since 1915 to describe the real deal, and since 1926 in the figurative sense we tend to hear it used most these days.
According to the sometimes reliable Wikipedia, it is more commonly deployed by grenade, and was invented by Frank Arthur Brock. His own story is interesting. He belonged to the C. T. Brock family, famous manufacturers of fireworks. While he was away at college, he blew up a stove, which seems only fitting. He then rejoined the family company, eventually becoming its director, until the onset of World War I. Although starting out in the Royal Artillery (another natural move, I'd think) he eventually ended up in the experimental branch of the Royal Navy. He developed more than a few things there--an anti-Zeppelin bullet that brought down the first German airship, a flare used in anti-submarine warfare, but he seems to be most remembered for smoke screen. It wasn't just an idea, Brock's was a specific chemical mixture that was injected into the exhaust pipes of small motor boats or the funnels of destroyers. He preferred to think of the result as 'artificial fog'.
This fog became important on April 22, 1918 when under its cover, an armada of  British small boats, led by a cruiser called, appropriately, HMS Vindictive, attacked the Mole (which means something like causeway or breakwater) at Zeebrugge, Belgium, where the German troops were based at that point and posing a serious problem for Allied shipping. Brock, who was on board the Vindictive to oversee the smokescreen process asked to be allowed to go ashore so that he might learn the secret behind German sound-ranging (a technique which helped them discover the coordinates of enemy artillery). He joined a storming party which was attempting a landing of the Mole. He was killed in action and his body never recovered, though there is a memorial to him at Zeebrugge. An interesting account of this raid on Zeebrugge is here.
I think I might have liked old Frank. Not only was he brave and curious, he also had a sense of humor. When he boarded ship for this last adventure, he brought with him a box labeled "Highly Explosive, Do Not Open".

 It proved to be vintage port, which he shared with his men.

Edited to add that the link above doesn't work anymore, but Colin McKenzie has given a link to a site about Albert McKenzie, a member of his family who was there at Zeebrugge and won the Victoria Cross for his efforts.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Remind me again what a Molotov Cocktail is.

As I watch the unfolding of events in Egypt, I've come across a couple of things that are suitable fodder for this blog. Tonight, or early this morning, really, the pro and anti Mubarak forces have been hurling Molotov Cocktails at each other. Obviously, these are incendiary explosives. But what exactly is such a cocktail composed of?

I remember, or think I remember that Molotov was a Soviet or Russian general. And it's clear that if people on the street have access to them, they've got to be a kind of homemade explosive. Are they standardized in formula, or are a lot of things that fit the description? Let's find out...

Okay, a Molotov Cocktail describes a wide range of incendiary devices. Basically, all it takes is a glass bottle, some gasoline or some other flammable liquid and a cloth wick, often soaked in kerosene or alcohol. The wick is set on fire and the bottle is thrown and on impact ignites into a fireball. Pretty much what you thought, right?

Here's the interesting part, though. Molotov was indeed a Russian. He was actually the Soviet People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs. In 1939, the Soviets, after being unsuccessful in convincing the Finns to cede territory to them, launched a full out offensive, which later became known as the Winter War. Molotov announced over the radio airwaves that they were not actually bombing the Finns, but delivering food. These bombs were RRABs, or rotationally dispersing aviation bombs. Basically, the bombs had a device that dispersed a hundred incendiary bombs through centrifugal force. The Finns, with gallows humor,sarcastically named these bombs "Molotov bread baskets". Molotov cocktails, which had actually been used already in the just finished Spanish civil war, were dubbed so by the Finns, who when throwing them at advancing Soviet tanks called them "a drink to go with the food".

Although the original tanks were vulnerable to this kind of assault, their design flaws were soon rectified. It's something to think about when you're dealing with tanks... and power.