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Born today in 1896: General James Doolittle


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A denier for a denier denier

Here are some words and expressions that drive me nuts, whether they’re popularly acceptable or not.

Herbivore vs. vegetarian

Sorry, folks. Animals can be herbivores (by natural design) but as far as I know only people can be vegetarians (by choice).

Career vs. careen

A car can career (travel quickly and recklessly) through an outdoor market but should only careen (tilt) when it goes too fast around corners. This was one of newscaster Edwin Newman’s favorite beefs.

Luxurious vs. luxuriant

Houses, vacations, and yachts can be luxurious. But unless you plan to use them to stuff cushions or something, hair and foliage can only be luxuriant.

Break your fall

You may well break through an awning while you’re at it, but having something “brake” your fall would make much more sense in my book. This sort of reminds me of “buck naked” vs. “butt naked” (always “buck,” but I have no idea why, unless it declares you can’t afford even a dollar to dress yourself).

To move the meeting back vs. up

For some reason this one has always given me brain freeze. Whenever someone has told me a certain stress-inducing event has been moved either back or up, I’ve had to ask immediately “To when?” before I’ve been able to relax or panic.


I first encountered this word when I was a kid reading an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records describing the thread size of the sheerest women’s hosiery ever sold. In that case, it’s pronounced DEN-ee-ay. Only much, much later than I should have did I learn of “denier” (dee-NIE-er) as one who denies. History buffs might also add “denier” (back to DEN-ee-ay) for the currency instituted by Charlemagne.

From whence

Redundant, since “whence” already means “from where.” But now that I see that the use of “from whence” goes back at least as far as the King James Bible (1611) I guess I don’t have a leg to stand on. Still hate it, though.


I can’t say that New York crime boss John Gotti and I would have had much in common, but one thing that we did was his abhorrence of people talking about having “closure.” This disease of a word seems to have cropped up only within the last 25 years or so by way of TV crime commentaries. For me only things like zippers, Velcro strips, and buttons provide closure.

To pay one’s respects

Much too bloodless and pro forma-sounding, as if you were a US vice president taking in the funeral of a minor dignitary you’ve scarcely heard of. The expression also presupposes that you harbored some respect for (if not fear of) the person who has died. You may or may not have, but there are still quite likely enough other reasons to sympathize and commiserate.

I’m originally from...

The bane of game show emcees, job interviewers, and blind dates. It sounds like you were birthed from a steel drawer and warns your listener further dry details may follow. “I’m from...” is sufficient; the geography you choose to cite can vary depending on the listener and the context.

Humanely euthanized

(As opposed to cruelly, right?)

The four thousand of us are dying

What’s happening to all of our celebrities? Sometimes it seems like anyone owning either a pair of shoes or a bottle of scotch that predate Justin Bieber is either outta here or at least teetering on the brink. Boy, the world was once so darned interesting.

But take heart. Who expected Conrad Bain to survive both Dana Plato and Gary Coleman? (Well, OK, but still.) Or Abe Vigoda to outlive spurious news of his demise by twenty-going-on-thirty years? Way to go, you two.

Here’s a list of people who are — in many cases quite enrichingly — still with us as of this writing. They range in age from 43 to 107. Some of these are obvious; others, pleasantly surprising.

Richard Anderson (Oscar in Six Million Dollar Man)
William Asher (Bewitched producer)
Ed Asner
Conrad Bain
Bob Barker
Mrs Beal, my first grade teacher
Tony Bennett
James Best (Twilight Zone, Dukes of Hazard)
Frank Cady (Green Acres, Petticoat Junction)
Joseph Campanella
Sid Caesar
Elliott Carter (composer, b. 1908)
Jimmy Carter (second longest ex-presidency so far)
Carol Channing
Charo (cuchi-cuchi flamenco guitarist)
Ramsey Clark (US Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson)
Rose Cliver (1906 San Francisco earthquake survivor)
Mike Connors (Mannix)
Michael Constantine
“Professor” Irwin Corey
Louise Currie (Citizen Kane)
Bill Daily (Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie)
William Daniels (The Graduate, peevish voice of Knight Rider car)
Olivia de Havilland
Kirk Douglas
Hugh Downs
Chad Everett (Medical Center)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass...”)
Joan Fontaine
Joe Franklin
Zsa Zsa Gabor (Queen of Outer Space)
Joe Garagiola
John Gilchrist (“Mikey” for Quaker Life, didn’t die from Pop Rocks)
Florence Green (World War I veteran)
Barbara Hale
Monty Hall (Door number one, number 2, or number 3?)
Ray Harryhausen (stop-motion animator)
Johannes Heesters (film and TV actor, b. 1903)
Gloria Henry (Alice in original Dennis the Menace series)
Mrs Huyler, my second grade teacher
Lee Iacocca
Al Jaffee (Mad cartoonist)
Wojciech Jaruzelski (shade-wearing Polish president ousted by Solidarity)
George Clayton Johnson (original Twilight Zone writer)
Dean Jones (frequent Disney actor)
Mikhail Kalashnikov (rifle inventor)
Nicholas Katzenbach (succeeded Robert Kennedy as US Attorney General)
Bil Keane (Family Circus)
Margaret Keane (Wide Eyed Moppets)
Don Keefer (got turned into a jack-in-the-box in Twilight Zone)
George Kennedy
Barbara Kent (silent movie actress, b. 1906)
Tommy Kirk (The Shaggy Dog)
Madeleine LeBeau (last surviving Casablanca cast member, b. 1923)
Carla Laemmle (silent movie actress, b. 1909)
June Lockhart
Norman Lloyd (fell off Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur)
George Maharis (Route 66)
Jerry Maren (Lollipop Guild munchkin in The Wizard of Oz)
Rose Marie
Peter Marshall (Hollywood Squares)
George McGovern
Rod McKuen
Martin Milner (Route 66, Sex Kittens Go To College)
Sir Patrick Moore (seemingly immortal astronomy popularizer)
Harry Morgan
Robert Morse (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)
LeRoy Neiman
Don Pardo
Christopher Plummer
Frederik Pohl (Golden Era science fiction author/editor)
Douglas Rain (voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey)
Rex Reason (This Island Earth)
Andy Rooney
Mickey Rooney
Lalo Schifrin
Prince Norodom Sihanouk
Paolo Soleri (utopic architect and bell maker)
Rip Taylor (confetti thrower)
Roy Thinnes
Mamie Van Doren (High School Confidential)
Abe Vigoda
Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey)
Mike Wallace
Eli Wallach (Baby Doll)
Betty White
Andy Williams
Jonathan Winters
Cal Worthington (used car tycoon)
Alan Young (The Time Machine, Mister Ed)

Title refers to the old Twilight Zone episode “The Four of Us Are Dying” about a face-changing con artist, played by four different actors. Who dies.

Oh no, not another ivory-billed woodpecker

The other day while I was driving I saw something flutter through the air that I thought was so important I immediately pulled over, got out, and backtracked half a block.

It was an enormous woodpecker, mostly black but with small white markings and a head with a scarlet crest.

ivory-billed woodpecker
Ivory-billed woodpecker by Theodore Jasper (1888)
Now the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) has been presumed extinct for decades and was officially declared as such in 1994. About every couple of years the papers will carry a story about an alleged sighting of them. The ornithological community will then furrow its collective brow and examine all the evidence, but so far its skepticism has prevailed.

As in the case of Bigfoot and the Tasmanian tiger, there are also some infuriatingly ambiguous photographs and sound recordings making the rounds. Cornell University has an outstanding offer of $50,000 to anyone who can lead their researchers to an indisputably living, breathing ivory-billed.

The bird alit on the trunk of a honey locust next to the road and started its rapid thonk-thonk-thonk, but it was cagey enough to stay on the side I couldn’t see. As I rounded the tree it scooched in the same direction to stay ahead of me but eventually decided to hell with it and flew off. As it did so, I could see large white areas on the trailing undersides of its wings.

This was in Michigan. Since ivory-billed woodpeckers live (or lived) primarily in the southeastern US and the Caribbean I wasn’t expecting any big miracle here. It turned out that, yes, what I had spotted was actually a ringer for it, the perfectly common Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). A true ivory-billed would have been even larger — about 20 inches long with a 30-inch wingspan — and would have had more white on the top near its tail. In addition it had a doubled pecking rhythm whereas the bird I saw and heard kept things perfectly even.

Trailer from Treasure of Sierra Madre
“Screw the gold. Let’s just go find us some o’ them gaudy woodpeckers.”
There’s an ivory-billed lookalike that’s larger yet, and again rare if not extinct: the Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis). Their traffic-stopping appearance sped their final demise as it encouraged people to shoot them simply out of curiosity. The last confirmed live specimen was dispatched in this manner in Mexico in 1956 (specifically Durango, where The Treasure of Sierra Madre had been filmed a decade earlier), so you might keep a semi-jaundiced eye out for this bird, too.

Cereal rescuers and hardcopy acres

Here are some half-baked ideas that have occurred to me, and no doubt to others, from time to time.

Cruise snoozer

This would be a loosely fitting shroud made of a black gauze that would allow you to see out but prevent others from seeing in. When you’re on a plane, train, or bus you would drape this over your head when you want to doze off. Of course since it renders your face invisible you could also use it to pretend to sleep when you want to, say, catch up on some surreptitious ogling or gracefully terminate that tedious and largely one-sided discourse with that stranger next to you. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Cereal rescuer

No one enjoys finishing out a cereal box and having to pour all those powdery dregs into their bowl along with the good stuff. Add milk, and... yuck. But at the same time it would be a shame to give up and throw that entire remainder away. Working much like a pasta colander, the cereal rescuer would consist of a round screened hoop about ten inches wide with a single handle and a mild spout-like dip 90 degrees clockwise from that handle. The screen would be coarse enough to retain only those flakes larger than some acceptable threshold — three-eights of an inch, maybe. You’d just give it a few gentle shakes over the sink or a wastebasket and then tilt what’s left into your bowl.

Who can keep track of all the world’s despots as they rise and fall, play shell games with their ill-gotten lucre among various no-tell foreign banks, revise and re-revise their constitutions to perpetuate their terms, issue their ever loonier decrees, and jail more and more of their opponents? Not I. would be all dictators, all the time. (Note: as of this writing both and are parked, so I suppose you could make their owners an offer.)

New unit: The hardcopy acre or HCA

If you print out data in text form, a standard typing paper-sized page (93.5 square inches) will hold about 44 kilobytes. If we assume an acre measures 43,560 square feet or 6,560,640 square inches, this means that hardcopy plastered across an acre of land would display about 3 gigabytes. If your machine has about 300 gigabytes of hard disc storage available, for example, that would amount to 100 HCAs. All the material* in the Library of Congress? About a million HCAs.

* Assuming 3 petabytes (3 x 1015 bytes) for all its printed text, photographs, maps, movies, and sound recordings. Since that estimate was published a decade ago, you could probably add a bit more.