Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tools for Change

Burkina-Faso, Administrative Divisions
I had honestly thought I was done with the inspiring posts for the season, but one more came my way at the Penny University  on Monday night, a discussion group I have been attending mostly faithfully for what seems like forever. This week we had not one but two guest speakers who are working on innovative projects in Africa. Ron Swenson has visited before. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of podcars as a preferable means of public transportation, and is becoming interested in the possibility that African cities may be more ready for such a change so was headed to East Africa to talk to some movers and shakers about that. I'm thinking Ron's ideas may fit in to a future blog post, so I think I'll leave that there for now.

Our other guest was Pierre Yamleowo Balma, who comes from Zao Village in Koupela, Burkina Faso, West Africa. It was his luck to become one of the few children designated to go to school, and his path eventually led him to Santa Cruz, where a former Peace Corps volunteer in his village now lived. On one of his visits to the area, he and his friend were taking some stuff to the dump, and Pierre saw many still usable tools that  had just been thrown away. To him this looked like amazing wealth, but he was told that neither he nor anyone else was allowed to just rummage through the dump. These articles were off-limits. He would have to find another way to acquire our cast off belongings. 

One thing led to another, and Tools for Change was born. Coordinating with a music festival called Reggae on the River which takes place every year on the Eel River up in Humboldt county, Tools for Change designated a drop off space for used tools, as well as other ways of donating, and on November 17th of this year, a 40 foot shipping container full of tools bound for Burkina Faso left the Oakland port. It is bound for Ghana, as Burkina Faso is a landlocked country. There is a sizable port fee and then the cost of shipping the tools over land. As Pierre explained it all of the tools have been engraved with the word "Common", because the intention is shared use by the whole village of 3000 people. Pierre's idea reaches beyond simple charity. To quote from an article from the Redwood Times about a visit he made to a the Garberville Rotary Club, there is an inspirational aspect.  He wants to be able to tell his people, “These were the tools of Americans. They used them to build their country and we can do the same here and become independent and prosperous.”

As Pierre admits, the whole idea is an experiment. If it doesn't work, he seems like the kind of guy who will try something else. But if it does, well, Zao Village is only one of many, many poor village collectives in Burkina Faso, and America has an awful lot of discarded tools. 

Tax-deductible monetary contributions, which may help with getting this load of tools to journey's end as well as future projects, may be sent to:

Mateel Community Center
c/o Tools For Change Program
P.O. Box 1910
Redway, CA 95560

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Let's all go to Mars!

Okay, maybe not literally for some of us. But you know, we can all participate. Remember the space race? I mean, when you studied it in school, not like me, who remembers watching Neil Armstrong walking on the

If, as Chris Hedges says, "War is a force that gives us meaning," and William James searched for "The Moral Equivalent of War", meaning something that challenged our greatest capacities and gave us our greatest solidarity as humans without involving bloodshed, doesn't a friendly competition to figure out how we can become a multi planet species, as Elon Musk suggests we must, make sense?

At any rate, after a dispiriting last couple of months,it was quite cheering to watch the incredible SpaceX launch and return undamaged of Falcon 9. As most of us have known since John Glenn, Star Trek and of course Star Wars, space is our future. So why are we wasting time duking it out down here?

Merry Christmas to those who observe it and happy holidays to everyone who gets through the dark days of the year with some kind of joyous (and peaceful) celebration.

Oh, yeah. And may be the Force be with you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Something you can do for me

I know--you think now's the time I start passing around the hat for some cause dear to me. But for some of you, it may be a good deal harder than just throwing a few dollars toward a good cause. The favor I'm asking is that, even though this is a busy season, and you're a great multi-tasker and an even better driver, please don't text and drive. I understand that it's a hardship, and you are really good at it. But you can be good at it 999 times and wreck your own life and someone else's forever on the thousandth. Please just use some self-restraint and wait until you can pull over.

And, since I probably haven't convinced you, here's a little film from none other than the great Werner Herzog, who took the time and care to make a little documentary about it a couple of years ago. Sadly, it's still relevant. Here, without further ado, is "From One Second to the Next".

Monday, December 14, 2015

Feel the Ville!

Tired of the same old holiday songs? Maybe it's time to try something new. It may start out a little chaotic, but by the end you will be energized to do whatever Christmas or holiday task you need to do.

I recently became acquainted with Dapo Akers as a Linked In connection. He's got a book series about a character called Robin from the Hood, who transforms from being a "hood from the hood" to, well, someone more like Robin Hood. You can check out the series HERE.

That's Dapo playing the guitar in the video. Have fun. If the lady with the cane can dance to this, you really have no excuse. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015


My friend Meg and I have developed a fun gift giving tradition in recent years. She gives me a Kiva gift card and I give her one right back. It was her idea and she's the proactive one, but I'm happy to take part in the exchange.

Odds are, you've heard of Kiva. It's a microlending organization where people crowdsource loans to people around the world who otherwise would't have access to them. Mostly these are in places where the offical lending institutions aren't set up, or aren't set up for people at their tier of the economy. There are some U.S. loans available too.

I've heard some criticisms of Kiva: the loans can be at a pretty high interest rate to the borrowers, but that's not because the lenders get anything back. It's often because of what it takes to administer these loans where the infrastructure for them isn't good. I've also heard the complaint that microlending isn't the panacea for world poverty that it was once vaunted to be. So I was interested in the section of the Challenges of Global Poverty course I took online that addressed this. On balance, their conclusion was that though microlending had its limitations, a good way to think of it was that it offered people a way to improve their life a little. I think sometimes people get a little outraged if someone is borrowing to pay for a wedding or to buy new furniture, instead of improving their farm or whatever, but if you think of it as giving people a way to afford some of the pleasures of life that we take for granted, even the little luxuries make sense.

Although the risk is all yours and people do occasionally default, my own experience is that the only time anyone every defaulted on a loan I'd made was because he had unfortunately died. And even then it was only a part of the loan. There can be some currency exchange loss and that's happened to me more frequently. Frankly, though I'm not in this to get a full return. The best thing about people paying back is that you can turn around and lend it to someone else. So even some very poor people have a way of paying it forward.

Once you join, you can affiliate with a team of your choice, but only if you'd like to. I'm on a few. My personal pitch is for the Late Loan Lenders, as the whole aim of this team is to keep loans from expiring (they only have 30 days to get fully funded, so it's a problem, though more for the field partners than for the borrowers themselves). So, though of course I'm all for empowering women, in practice women's loans tend to get funded faster than those to lone men, so I may have a disproportionate amount of Tajikistani cab drivers in my portfolio. I'm also on the Electric Animal Enthusiasts team, which you'll be glad to know isn't a team that enjoys electrocuting animals, but instead enjoys the crazy way some animals eyes glow in the dark in their pictures.

Anyway, if you need a 25 dollar gift for someone who has everything, maybe Kiva is just the place for you to shop. Or maybe just invest it for yourself. It turns out that it's pretty fun to be a financier.


Saturday, December 12, 2015


Actually, I'm not a huge fan of the word "repurposed", as it's often just a fancy way of saying "used", but in this case I'll make an exception, as this is truly a new purpose for a plague upon the planet. And best thing of all, I'm not pitching that you get involved or donate or anything, just that you know about this cool thing. At least for now.

I came across this on TakePart, but I see that it's been mentioned in several places. Basically, it's an effort to house homeless people in pretty cool houses made of nothing more than plastic bottles and dirt. Here's the TakePart article by David McNair.

                                                                                   Amina Abubakar/Getty Images
14.000 plastic bottle is all it takes. See what you can do.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Congratulate the people of the Marshall Islands

                                                            How Stuff Works
I had a whole other thing lined up for today, but I just got word that for the first time in its history, the Right Livelihood Award was given to an entire nation: the people of the Marshall Islands, "in recognition of their vision and courage to take legal action against the nuclear powers for failing to honor their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law."

If you'd like to, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation offers you a chance to congratulate the Marshallese people right HERE. And you can also watch Foreign Minister Tony de Brum's acceptance speech on behalf of his people below. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day. I was just reminded of this over at Kathleen Kirk's blog, Wait! I Have a Blog? but had seen an email earlier about it from Care2 as well. Keeping with the theme here over the past week or so of things you can do that might actually do some good at a rather despairing point in our history, I'm going to link to their 5 Ways You Can Celebrate Human Rights Day post, written by Steve Williams. Some of the suggestions are about ways to educate yourself about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, how it came about and what human rights laws it has inspired over time and across continents. There are several videos, including a longer one in which Emma Watson interviews Malala Yousafzai. Here's a simple rendering of all our rights by some charming kids.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Heifer Project

For many years, one of the Christmas presents my aunt would give us was a donation to the Heifer Project, now known as Heifer International. Although it's similar to the Oxfam Unwrapped program I mentioned a few days ago, there's a slight difference in their emphasis. They have something of a pay it forward model, where people who receive an animal and training, pass on that training, as well as giving the first female animal that their own livestock produces to another family. I've always liked the idea of the Heifer Project and am happy to endorse their work here now.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Write for Rights

So far, the possibilities I've mentioned for making a difference this season have involved some kind of purchase, but today's suggestion only really involves the cost of postage. It's Amnesty International's yearly holiday letter writing campaign. You can do this all on your own, or host or attend a group event where you all write letters together. Here's a link to the stories of some of the people you'll be advocating for.

I've participated in Amnesty's holiday campaigns in the past, and it's actually pretty satisfying. So throw in a few letters among your Christmas or holiday cards this year. Unlike some of the people you'll be writing for, you have nothing to lose by speaking out.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Educate a girl

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for the education of boys too, and there's certainly no shortage of ways boys can be shortchanged in their own pursuit of education. So if you'd like to fund some boy's education, please, don't let me stop you. But as we all know through the story of Malala Yousafzai, there are parts of the world where girls' education is actively hindered, and beyond that, when families in straitened circumstances have to prioritize education, it's often the girls who lose out.

The admirable International Rescue Committee, which deals particularly with people caught in the midst of large scale humanitarian crises, emailed me about a program they've set up where you can donate to give a gift of a year of school for one girl. And you will find other kinds of things you can give to all kinds of people there, at a wide variety of price ranges.

I think the future of the world depends on girls and women being fully incorporated into our collective decision-making. Men sometimes appear to be afraid of this, but in fact, bringing all of our human resources to bear on the problems the world is facing is a win-win for everyone.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Nothing but Nets

A couple of years ago, I took a really great free course from MIT through EdX called The Challenges of Global Poverty.  Being MIT, there was a lot of focus on statistics and measurable data, but the real interest for the layperson was in learning what actually works. One of the things that works is bed nets for malaria. Although it seems a no brainer in retrospect, it turns out that it isn't so much that you have to provide a bed net to everyone, but that if enough of a population is using bed nets, it reduces the chances of contracting malaria for everyone.

Therefore, the simple goal of providing bed nets to people that the organization Nothing But Nets achieves actually has enormous consequences. For a mere ten dollars you can buy a net for a family. As their information page says, not long ago, a child died of malaria every 30 seconds. Now the statistic is that a child dies every sixty seconds. Obviously, that's a huge improvement, but equally obviously, it's nowhere near good enough. If you'd like to buy a net, go HERE. During the holiday season, your donation will go twice as far.

                                                                                  World Bank Photo collection

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Today's post actually does have a word learning element, as sundara is Sanskrit for "beautiful". But that's not why I'm writing about it today. Yesterday I happened to get an email from TakePart, an online action group, which included a link to this article. The story is about how a woman in India has started an organization called Sundara that takes slightly used hotel soap, cleans it up and sanitizes it, and refashions it into new bars for people who otherwise would have none. It's estimated that seventy million people in India qalone live entirely without soap. The article tells us that more than two million children die of diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea which could be prevented by soap and regular hand washing.

If you're like me, you sometimes think of things you'd like to have that you can't afford. But I'm pretty sure if you're reading this, you have a bar of soap at your disposal, which puts you in a category of luxury that a lot of people can't even conceive of. If you'd like you can make a donation at Sundara, and in some parts of the world anyway, you can also get involved with Clean the World, which gathers soap from the U.K. and the E.U. among other things.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Give a goat

Yes, yes, don't worry--there is a ton of ignorance piling up around here and it's all bound to spew forth sometime. But I just had a great idea, which is to highlight some cool things you and I can do for others over this sometimes overly consumer oriented season. Today for example, I got an email from Oxfam, suggesting that it might be a good day to give a goat, as they were going to match all goat donations up to about 25,000 dollars. Maybe you didn't know that Oxfam was in the goat giving business. Well, neither did I.

According to the email I got from Oxfam, here's the word on goats:

They're at the top of our list because they make a HUGE difference for families living in poverty. Goats provide milk and fertilizer – and they reproduce quickly, so what starts as a few goats can quickly turn into a stable source of income.

It's a funny thing, but at a certain point in my childhood, I actually dreamed of having a goat farm. I even envisioned having goat cart rides as part of the operation. Sadly, it never came to pass. But at least I can help someone else fulfill my vision.

"CL North in a Goat Wagon"

Here's the link to Oxfam Unwrapped. If a goat is a little out of your price range, fear not. There is sure to be a gift there tailored just for you.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Something I don't get

Syrian refugee children in Lebanon
Possibly this is a little more political than I get here usually, but it is genuinely something I don't get. Currently, a wave of fear is going through America at the thought that 10,000 Syrians might arrive on American soil because there is some very remote chance that a radicalized terrorist might slip in among them.

Yet if some innocent citizen should happen to go to the movies, walk into a mall or go to school, we are totally unprepared to protect them from acts of violence by people similarly armed with automatic machine guns or anything else. And unwilling to do anything in light of these deaths to protect them. This disconnect seems to me insane.

Because we seem at this moment in time to let our children go out in a world where there is no protection against unstable, racist or militant people with guns, I feel justified in saying that our fear of letting people into our country who made a hazardous journey in overcrowded, leaky rafts with no guarantee that they or their children would even survive the trip is more than a little crazy.

Here's the MSNBC video where Richard Engel boards a Greek boat which patrols to help Syrian refugees in distress. Greece, which as he notes is ill-equipped to take in masses of Syrians, nevertheless accepts them without qualm because they understand the crisis in  a way that we apparently do not.

I happened to watch the Benedict Cumberbatch production of Hamlet from National Theatre Live last weekend. He closed it with a plea to donate to Save the Children and a  few fragments from a poem by Warsan Shire called "Home". This is how it starts:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

 Here is a link to a place where you can read the whole thing. Read it and then consider donating to one of the many places geared to help the people in the leaky boats. If you can't figure out what these might be, please write me. If you're a state governor who is going to try and keep Syrian refugees out of your state, well, I'd advise you to go elsewhere to spread your message.

a picture from The Daily Impact

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Peace for Paris

                                                                                                                  Jean Jullien
You've probably seen this somewhere today, but just in case someone hasn't I thought I'd post it. Slate magazine tracked down Jean Jullien, the illustrator who drew it and posted a short interview HERE.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

veteran--and a bonus word as well

                                                                                                                U.S. Navy

It's Veteran's Day here in the U.S. which for some reason I'm more aware of than usual, perhaps because it's in the middle of the week, even though so many other holidays have been moved to Mondays to accommodate weekend plans. There have been lots of vets' activities too, one of which I'll mention below.

So I started thinking about the word 'veteran', and realized that I really didn't have a clue where it came from--not even a guess.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, 'veteran' came into English around 1500 and meant pretty much what we mean now--'an old, experienced soldier'. The French was vétéran, the Latin veteranus, and though this had the meaning of "old, aged or in long use", it was used particularly of soldiers. But the emphasis on age is there in the source word, vetus, which is all about age and use, and not about war. It's also the source of words like the Italian vecchio, the Spanish viejo, and the French vieux, which all mean old or aged and may be more familiar to us from our various language studies. It's a bit surprising to me, as, when you think about it, there must always have been some pretty young veterans coming home from every war. But I guess they do stay veterans for a pretty long time afterwards.

My mother, Carolyn S. Graham, as a WAVE

The expanded use of 'veteran' to mean anyone who has been of long service in a role or job doesn't come around in print till about 1590, which is a fairly long time after as these things go. 

This also got me thinking about the word 'inveterate'. Turns out I didn't really know what 'inveterate' meant. I think I've probably heard it most used in the phrase, 'an inveterate liar', so I always thought it meant something like 'accomplished' or 'skilled', maybe with a touch of shadiness thrown in. But inveterate really means 'habitual or long-standing'. It too has vetus at its root, the Latin  past participle inveterare meaning 'to grow old in'.

Santa Cruz is holding a very Santa Cruzan sort of Veteran's Day celebration this year. the Holistic Veterans are inviting the community to a Community Healing Project this evening. They're using the Veterans Memorial to host a wide range of holistic healing sessions, like yoga, reiki, acupuncture and so on, serving an organic meal, doing pottery and art  and music. It's largely free but there's an auction and a raffle and all proceeds are going to be used to send twelve vets to healing retreat in Costa Rica. Here's a story of the Holistic Warriors and how they came to know of this Costa Rican site. I won't be able to attend this evening but it's a great idea and I certainly hope it's successful.

Although I am not really of a military cast of mind, coming of age in the Vietnam era as I did, both my parents were vets and I owe my existence to the fact that they were, as they met while stationed overseas. So Happy Veteran's Day, everyone.

Monday, October 26, 2015


No, this isn't another word that came to me via the political realm. I was thinking about the word 'clapboard' and then I started wondering about the word 'claptrap'. It's a simple as that. And I'm glad I did, because claptrap proves to be a delightful word. Well, you already know it sounds delightful. Like other words that rhyme within themselves, they please us for some reason: hocus-pocus, mumbo jumbo, roly-poly. But I mean that it also has delightful beginnings.

Claptrap means 'nonsense' but maybe more like 'nonsense!' said in an emphatic way. It has a lot of equivalents--'rubbish', 'drivel', 'poppycock',' humbug'. We have way more words than we actually need for this meaning, actually. But I suspect that this won't stop us from coining more.

I fully expected to find that claptrap was derived from, say, the High German klappentrappen  meaning a load of garbage or some such thing, but in fact claptrap is all English. It comes from the theatre world. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it appeared in print in around 1730 and was a stage term. It was originally a trick meant to 'catch' applause. A trap for claps, in other words. Pretty cool. I would have liked to find some example of what this kind of trick was, but haven't so far. I am not sure if the trick would have been of a verbal or a physical nature, or both. I'm kind of thinking it might be something like what we'd mean now by a 'star turn' or a 'show stopper', but I can't be sure.

                                                                                       Sam Levin

Apparently by 1819, the term was in common enough usage that it's meaning had extended to any sort of  showy language.World Wide Words  says that it was speech appealing to the lowest common denominator, full of platitudes and mawkish sentimentality. From there, as that website and others say, it was a short step to meaning 'nonsense'.

World Wide Words also clears up a misconception that seems to be floating in the ether. Many years later, a device was created to simulate clapping, much like our laugh track, which was also called a claptrap. But its invention comes 150 after the original usage.

I'd like to have an image of that device for you, but web images are dominated by a primitive looking robotlike character called Claptrap from the videogame Borderlands. According to their Wiki,

"Claptrap is a CL4P-TP general purpose robot manufactured by Hyperion. It has been programmed with an overenthusiastic personality, and brags frequently, yet also expresses severe loneliness and cowardice."

Here's an image of Claptrap, as rendered by fan J.P. Simpson:

More interesting to me personally is that there was apparently a stage play by Ken Friedman called "Claptrap", which opened at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987. It wasn't well received. But it did inadvertently give Nathan Lane his big break. According to the L.A. Times, Lane was in the lobby after  yet another frustrating performance in what the Times termed "this dying farce", 

A man passing through the lobby paused, disturbed by Lane's forlorn face. "Hi," he said, extending a hand, "I'm Terrence McNally. You seem a little down, but you're very good in 'Claptrap,' and you shouldn't worry. Your career won't suffer as long as the work is good." 

Not only did McNally give Lane encouragement at a much needed moment, but he went on to cast him in 'Lisbon Traviata' a few years, which sent his career soaring. 

Sometimes a little claptrap is all you need. 


Wednesday, October 14, 2015



On the first of the Democratic Presidential debates last night, Bernie Sanders referred to Syria as a quagmire within a quagmire. For Americans of a certain age, 'quagmire' evokes the U.S. war in Vietnam so many years ago. A quagmire in this case means a military involvement that there is no easy way of extricating your troops from.

My question, though, is, what was a quagmire originally?


According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the first instance of 'quagmire' in print was in 1570. "Quag", now obsolete, meant bog or marsh, from Middle English quabbe, which in theory goes back to Old English *cwabbe, meaning to shake or tremble (the Online Etymology Dictionary adding "like something soft and flabby"). And "mire" meant, well, pretty much the same thing, only from Scandinavian roots, like Old Norse myrr. So not just a bog but a double bog--a sort of "quagmire within a quagmire" situation, really.


As a word which literally meant, shaky ground, it's not surprising that  originally there wasn't just one spelling. There were quamyre and quabmire and quadmire--even quakemire. The metaphoric use of the word of the word meaning "in an inescapable bad situation" was with us as early as 1766, but fell out of common usage for a lot of the nineteenth century.

In the way words sometimes do, though, it came into fashion again because of a specific military meaning it had in the sixties, after the publication of a popular book by David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, which specifically addressed the situation of military involvement the U.S. faced in Vietnam.

But it turns out that an earlier intelligent observer saw America's penchant for getting into quagmires long before Halberstam did. If only he'd come up with a solution for that then:

"You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question. I am at the disadvantage of not knowing whether our people are for or against spreading themselves over the face of the globe. I should be sorry if they are, for I don't think that it is wise or a necessary development. As to China, I quite approve of our Government's action in getting free of that complication. They are withdrawing, I understand, having done what they wanted. That is quite right. We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours. There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it -- perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands -- but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector -- not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now -- why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation."

    Mark Twain, Returning Home, New York World [London, 10/6/1900]

Cited at

(Photo by Terry Ballard taken of portrait circa 1905, owned by the Mark Twain library in Redding, Connecticut.)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Night Watchman"

I've been away. Regular service to resume shortly. In the meantime, why don't you take a look at my friend A. M. Thurmond's short story, voted as most popular over at the M.O. this round? Now you can read it in its entirety right HERE.

cover art by Tobie Ancipink

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Flash Jab!

Apologies to those who only read this blog to find out what else I don't know, but another story of mine is up today, this time over at Jack Bates' Flash Jab Fiction. Jack was a fellow plotter in Untreed Reads Grimm Tales with me a few years ago, and so obviously is a crime fiction writer in his own right, but periodically is gracious enough to issue a challenge over on his blog. I do like challenges with prompts, and I particularly like his photo challenges as they are more open ended than some.

Another fun thing is that this time there are two respondents and we are both from Santa Cruz! What are the odds? I don't believe I've had the pleasure of meeting Morgan Boyd, but I do think I know which roller coaster gave him the idea for the background sound in his opening paragraph, as it was a background sound in my own life for several years.

Without further ado, check out his story "Enology (The Study of Wine)" and mine, "Black and White and Red All Over" at Flash Jab Fiction.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A story

I wrote up a little story for a challenge by Brian Lindenmuth over at Do Some Damage a while ago. The idea was to use a bunch of famous titles to construct a story from. The challenge seems to have gone a bit on hiatus, though I will update this if things change, but I found it a fun challenge, and posted something on my story related blog. You can find it HERE. If you click on the author name at the bottom you will find a link to the titles I used.

I'm not claiming it's great literature, but it was fun to work out, and it may be fun for you to see where the titles fit in.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


I'm kind of borrowing this word from Bookwitch's post, if not outright stealing. Haven't read Bookwitch, even though I have her blog right there in the blog roll? You should check her out sometime. You don't have to be a fan of children's literature or crime fiction to enjoy her original mind. If she didn't state it boldly, you would never know that she was Swedish, living in England for many years and now Scotland. She is a much better writer in English than she thinks she is, or than most of us native speakers actually are.

In her latest blog post, she admitted feeling a bit perplexed about the precise meaning of "perpendicular". She knew vaguely, but vaguely wasn't good enough when it came to giving directions at a crucial moment. She straightened it out in time, realizing that it meant "at right angles", but a regular commenter there said that she had always understood it to mean "vertical". As in candles on a cake. Both vertical and perpendicular do make sense in that context.

Anyway, I decided to get a little deeper into this. It turns out that the commenter who had assumed verticality has a reason for thinking that. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary. "Perpendicular" comes to us via Old French (perpendiculer) from the Latin perpendicularis--"vertical, as a plumb line". This in turn came from the word perpendiculum, which means "a plumb line". Think about it. What is more perpendicular to the ground than a plumb line? 

The verb that perpendiculum comes from is perpendere, which means "to balance carefully". "Per-" is thoroughly, pendere means "to weigh or to hang".

"Weigh" keeps coming up. We'll get to it. 


Saturday, September 19, 2015

under way

This was another thing that came up through my book group's recent reading of Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr.. I wasn't the only member who was intrigued to see Dana write "under way" (or "underway") as "'under weigh". It sounded right. It sounded nautical. "Anchors aweigh!" and all that. So I decided to look a little further into it.

Great Tea Race of 1866

But it turns out that Dana had this wrong. The original expression actually is "under way". As World Wide Words tells it, the phrase begins in the Dutch onderweg, meaning 'on the way' and becomes 'under way' in English around 1740. It's specifically a nautical term and doesn't take on other non-nautical meanings till the next century. Wikipedia tells us that to be under way has a very specific definition when it comes to seafaring. The "way" in the phrase means that a vessel has enough water flowing past its rudder that it is possible to steer it. There can be legal ramifications to whether or not a vessel is under way. Things like whether a child does or does not need to be wearing a flotation devise. (I say, when they get on the boat, but that is not the legal reasoning.) A ship is under way if it is not  aground, at anchor, or made fast to a stationary object like a dock. The article also says that it is not underway if it is adrift, but this is a bit confusing, because in the next sentence it says it is under way, as opposed to "making way" if it is drifting, which basically means not being steered by anyone.

So if you happen to be drifting, put the life-jacket on. Just in case.

SMS Konig

Very soon after "under way" began to be used, the nautical term "weigh", as in "Anchors aweigh!", confused the spelling. You will find many famous and needless to say reputable writers using "under weigh", including Dickens, Thackeray, Herman Melville, and of course, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. For a while, it had become almost the standardized way of spelling the term. The well-educated, then, were perhaps more prone to make the error. (I noticed Dana also wrote "taut" as "taught" when talking about the ship's ropes, so maybe there was more of a stylistic preference for that added "gh" than there would be now.)

The German Frigate Augsburg and others, 1982

But a funny thing happened. Somewhere around the 1930s, "under way" started being fused into "underway", and the "under weigh" variant began to drop off. World Wide Words posits that it was under the influence of other words with -way endings, and especially "anyway". I always like it when words drift, but its especially interesting to see one drift back, whether it is technically under way while in this drift or not.

"Boat Adrift" by Charles Napier Hemy

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dear Lucky Agent contest 2015

Sorry to post this at the last minute, but in order to enter a contest, I have to mention the Dear Lucky Agent contest in a couple of social media places. I'm not on Facebook or Twitter, so lucky you, I'm mentioning it here. I am not intentionally doing it late in order to give you less of a chance, I'm doing it late because I'm a procrastinator. And didn't know today was the day. Not great excuses, but real ones.
Anyway. If you have a completed mystery, suspense or thriller novel, you can submit the first 150-250
words for a chance at a critique of your first ten pages, a subscription to Writer's Market for a year, and a book, How to Get a Literary Agent. And, you never know--the agent might like your book. It happens.

Get going because you only have till midnight Pacific Standard Time. And good luck. Here's the link.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

a carp by any other name...

I heard about some carp or other on the Rachel Maddow Show. It seems such a strange word and I wondered about its origins. Here is what I discovered, thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The word entered English in the late fourteenth century from the Old French carpe.

 That came directly from Vulgar Latin carpa--which led to the Italian carpa and the Spanish, uh, carpa.

It all seems to go back to the German, as the carp is originally from the Danube. The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the German source may be *karpa, because of the Middle Dutch carpe, the Dutch karper, the old High German karpfo and the german karpfen.

Lithuania borrowed the word, hence karpis. So did Russia, breaking boundaries by calling it karp.

So a carp, in a lot of other languages, is still basically a carp.

Except occasionally, when it's a goldfish.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Lesson Learned

Remember a few posts back when I used this blog to talk about a story contest over at the Criminal Element's The M.O.? Well, now I'm at it again. The theme this time around was "Lesson learned". I submitted a story but it didn't make the short list. C'est la vie. The good news, though, is that I happened to mention the contest to an old friend of mine who ended up submitting this time--and made the short list!

As usual you should vote for the one you want to read. But I will say that I have had a chance to read A.M. Thurmond's story "Night Watchman" in its entirety and, well, it's really good. Check them all out HERE. Midnight September 23rd is your deadline for voting. (I don't know what time zone they're in, so err on the side of caution.)

Monday, September 7, 2015


Houghton Mifflin, 2011
This month my reading group is delving into Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s account of sailing from Boston around Cape Horn to California as a young man in the 1830s. It has a lot of nautical language, and fortunately a glossary is provided in the back of my book, but one funny thing early on is that Dana is at pains to tell us all what "Land ho!" means, while he just drops in the unfamiliar word "oakum" without further explanation.

It was clear at least in context that oakum was a substance used in ship repair. Dana's first mention of it is in explaining all the things sailors got up to because they were never allowed to be idle, and so when there was nothing else left to do they were "picking oakum-ad infinitum".

So what is oakum? I gathered from some other mention in the book that it has something to do with the fact that it involved taking apart old ropes in order to reuse the fibers in other ways. It turns out that oakum is basically what you have when you completely untwine the rope. The fiber is then sometimes treated with tar, as seems to be the case in Dana's book, and then used to caulk the seams in those old wooden ships, among other things.

I was hoping the word had some relation to the slangy word 'hokum', but such is not the case. "Oakum", according to the Online Etymology Dictonary, comes from the Old English word "acumba" which meant "tow, oakum, flax fibers separated by combing" and more literally "what is combed out". the "a" at the beginning means "away, out, off" and the rest comes from "cemban", to comb.

It wasn't just sailors on shipboard who were consigned to picking oakum. According to Wikipedia, it was a common occupation in both workhouses and in prisons of the Victorian era. At a place called Coldbath Fields Prison (a Dickensian name indeed) the prisoners had to pick two pounds a day of this stuff unless they under hard labor--in which case they had to pick three to six pounds a day. It may not sound like hard labor, but in fact the tiny fibers would cut into your fingers very soon.

In the course of looking into all this, I ran across a really interesting blog by a guy named Stuart Godman called AheadofHistory, and in this particular post he describes teaching his students about the Victorian poor by showing them about oakum picking and even getting them to do some. He has a little YouTube clip on the post from a series called "The Worst Jobs in History" and oakum picking features about halfway in:

Speaking of Dickensian, I should have been familiar with the word "oakum" from long ago. I guess I just wasn't paying attention at the time:

" Well, you have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade," said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

" So you 'll begin to pick oakum to-morrow at six o'clock," added the surly one in the white waistcoat. 

For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward: where, on a rough, hard bed, he cried himself to sleep.
                                                          --Oliver Twist, Chapter II

And if you look at this page you can see that "oakum" crops up quite a bit in earlier British and American literature. "Oakum" must have been better known back then, as Dickens uses it in a descriptive way in this sentence from The Old Curiosity Shop:

Sound it might have been, but long it was not, for he had not been asleep a quarter of an hour when the boy opened the door and thrust in his head, which was like a bundle of badly-picked oakum.

It's quite vivid, isn't it, so long as you know what oakum actually looks like

Once again from AheadofHistory

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

pore (over)

Stamp collectors pore over specimens from the Brown University collections in the John Hay Library

I had occasion to use the phrase 'pore over' in something I was writing the other day, and though I was pretty sure I had the right spelling, it's one of those sort of things that I can sometimes get exactly wrong, so decided to look it up to be sure. While I was doing this though, I started wondering about the word 'pore' and where it had come from. After poring over a few etymology sites, here are the results:

No one knows.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that its meaning of  'to gaze intently' has been in English since as far back as the early thirteenth century, but from there the trail fades out. It is not connected to any obvious word in Old French, unlike the more familiar 'pore', as in one of those openings in your skin, which for some reason has been more easily traced back to the Latin porus and the Greek pore, which literally means a passage or way. It's odd and a little frustrating that an identical sounding word has left these clues, and this one has not. The Online Etymology Dictionary records the speculation that it might be from a hypothetical Old English word purian, because there did exist the word spyrian, which means to investigate or examine, and the more familiar sounding spor, which meant a trace or a vestige, and seems to be related to the word 'spoor' which is still in use when discussing tracking, although that one came to us from the Dutch via South Africa. Again, check out the Online Etymology Dictionary.

We get a fair number of guesses over the origins of 'pore' over at English Language and Usage. There we learn that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it might be related to the obsolete word pire, which meant to peer or gaze at, but they are quick to say that there is no reason to think that it has any connection to our own word 'peer'. Aye yi yi!

There's also a tangent leading off after the obscure word 'purblind', and I particularly liked this quote from none other than Francis Bacon, otherwise known as Shakespeare. (I'm kidding--I have no idea who wrote those plays and poems. Regardless of identity, they would still be a miracle.)

Pore-blinde men, see best in the Dimmer Light; And likewise have their sight Stronger neere hand, than those that are not Pore-blinde; And can Reade and Write smaller Letters. [...] But being Contracted, are more strong, than the Visuall Spirits of Ordinarie Eyes are; As when we see thorow a Levell, the sight is Stronger: And do is it, when you gather the eyelids somewhat close: And it is commonly seene in those that are Pore-blinde, that they doe much gather the Eye-lids together.
                                            Sylva Sylvarum or Natural History--1627

Interesting, but not really what we normally think of as Shakespearean prose.

Another thing that fascinates me is that to "pour over" may be gaining ground. One commenter over at Grammarist said that they had read the phrase 'pour over' in the Smithsonian (I think meaning the magazine rather than the museum). And another staunchly defends 'pour over' as perfectly legit:

I would say that using my eyes to pour over a book is exactly the right use of the word, where the eyes flow over the text like water covering every little word and detail in the text ensuring that nothing is missed.

And thus a folk etymology is born. Call me crazy, but I'm predicting that 'pour over' will eventually win the day.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Shatterproof quiz on prescription drug addiction

Shatterproof, a national group dedicated to ending teen drug and alcohol addiction, sent me an interesting email today. In it they invited me to take a three question quiz on prescription drug addiction. In return, they said, a donor would send them fifty cents if I completed it.

Actually, I know a little bit about how addictive prescription painkillers can be, though thankfully not from having had occasion to become addicted to them. No, I became curious abut the drug OxyContin after watching the series Justified and then coincidentally seeing a Lisa Ling report on the way the drug had eaten inroad in the Salt Lake City Mormon community.

Despite my awareness of the problem, I actually got all three questions wrong. So why don't you go on over to the quiz and see if you can beat me? It shouldn't be that hard. This donor will honor all you quiz takers with a 50 cent contribution for each completed quiz, up to a maximum of 30,000 dollars. It's really to bad I don't have 15,000 followers, but we do what we can...