A denier for a denier denier
December 23rd, 2011
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
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.
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
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.
(As opposed to cruelly, right?)
The four thousand of us are dying
September 30th, 2011
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
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
Mrs Beal, my first grade teacher
James Best (Twilight Zone
, Dukes of Hazard
Frank Cady (Green Acres
, Petticoat Junction
Elliott Carter (composer, b. 1908)
Jimmy Carter (second longest ex-presidency so far)
Charo (cuchi-cuchi flamenco guitarist)
Ramsey Clark (US Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson)
Rose Cliver (1906 San Francisco earthquake survivor)
Mike Connors (Mannix
“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
Olivia de Havilland
Chad Everett (Medical Center
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass...”)
Zsa Zsa Gabor (Queen of Outer Space
John Gilchrist (“Mikey” for Quaker Life, didn’t die from Pop Rocks)
Florence Green (World War I veteran)
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
Mrs Huyler, my second grade teacher
Al Jaffee (Mad cartoonist)
Wojciech Jaruzelski (shade-wearing Polish president ousted by Solidarity)
George Clayton Johnson (original Twilight Zone
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
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)
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
Peter Marshall (Hollywood Squares
Martin Milner (Route 66
, Sex Kittens Go To College
Sir Patrick Moore (seemingly immortal astronomy popularizer)
Robert Morse (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Frederik Pohl (Golden Era science fiction author/editor)
Douglas Rain (voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Rex Reason (This Island Earth
Prince Norodom Sihanouk
Paolo Soleri (utopic architect and bell maker)
Rip Taylor (confetti thrower)
Mamie Van Doren (High School Confidential
Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey
Eli Wallach (Baby Doll
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
May 28th, 2011
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
It was an enormous woodpecker, mostly black but with small white markings and a head with
a scarlet crest.
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.
“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
May 26th, 2011
Here are some half-baked ideas that have occurred to me, and no doubt to others, from time
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.
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
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. DictatorNews.com would be all dictators,
all the time. (Note: as of this writing both dictatornews.com and trashcanistan.com 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.