Assembling the space station

Just this morning my Dad sent me this nifty Flash animation from USA Today: Building the Space Station. There’s a lot of depth to it. Keep on clicking and you can find out where the Soyuz periscope is stowed. The graphic is nifty and moderately interactive, but it also makes the station look a little toy-like and antiseptic, like something out of a Tintin comic.

If you want to see what it really looks like to put together a space station, take a look at the Big Picture version of the story. I love the human stories, like this picture of someone exercising. The place is a mess, there are Russian magazines and pictures of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on the wall, and you just know it smells in there. And although this picture shows that up and down are arbitrary concepts in space, I once learned from an astronaut that on the space shuttle up and down are very important social constructs. It’s disconcerting to address yourself to someone else’s boots. Like facing the wrong way in an elevator, you can do it, but it’s weird and it makes everyone else uncomfortable.

That’s human nature for you. We like to think the world is defined by physics, but really it’s psychology.

Test Your Geography Knowledge

I have sung the praises of (here and here), the game site that can teach you more than you learned in grad school. First they had the U.S. presidents. Then they added things like African countries, and the periodic table of the elements. Now they’re adding games at a breakneck pace, and along with the expected pop culture quizzes on cartoon villains, you can crack your brain on obscure and mind-bending tests like naming the 54 Danish monarchs between 934 and the present day. FYI: “Hamlet’s Dad” is not an acceptable answer, but “Eric the Memorable” and “Gorm the Sleepy” will both work. I always forget Eric.

And by the way, I’m chagrined to report that I could only get 44 out of 50 correct on the Monty Python and the Holy Grail quiz. Can you top that?

Anyway, I didn’t want to get sucked into talking about Sporcle again. What I wanted to do was point you to an entirely new and seductive way to waste hours of your precious time. On I got introduced to the amazing head-to-head geography challenge called Geosense. You get paired with another player, they flash up a city like “Vientiane, Laos” and you have to click on it on an unmarked world map faster and more accurately than your opponent. Hard and fun. Try it.

Complexity made visible: mechanical watches

Your “Check Engine” light comes on for no good reason. The fax machine keeps swallowing your pages, but the message never gets sent. The screen on your cell phone starts turning black. The world is full of so much baffling and deeply hidden technology it can make you crazy. Contrariwise, it is reassuring to see simple cause-and-effect in action. That’s what’s so appealing about Rube Goldberg devices. The complexity of the world is reflected in the improbable machinery, but it’s nice to see each little step spelled out, one obvious consequence after another. The roller skate rolled into the tea-kettle only because it was kicked by the shoe on the croquet mallet. It makes perfect sense!

A similar appeal is behind the surging interest in extremely accurate mechanical watches. Why would anyone pay more than $100,000 for a watch, especially when you can get a much more accurate electronic watch for a tiny fraction of that amount? Because it’s mechanical gears are reassuring, even charming. It feels more real, like something you can understand. Although honestly, I bet only three and a half people on the planet actually understand the Jaeger-LeCoultre Gyrotourbillon. Just look at it.

Call it micro-steampunk. Luddism writ small. I wonder if you can sabotage it with a tiny wooden shoe?

Pushing this mechanical fetish even farther is this remarkable mechanical-digital watch. It looks digital, but it’s powered by gears. And although it is powered by electrical motors, here’s a favorite of mine: the wooden TV.

Oh sure, those Electrons are your friends now. But one of these days they’ll forsake you for the industrial bourgeoisie. Then where will you be? Come the Revolution, you’re going to need Gears!

“Ode to Joy” played on wine glasses

One of my friends from elementary school found me via Facebook the other day, and what do you know, he’s the timpanist for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. It’s good to know people who are principal timpanists.

I never excelled at playing orchestral instruments, but I remember being fascinated with their names when I was in elementary school. There are so many good ones, many of them strangely similar in shape and sinew to the instruments they announce: trombone, bassoon, oboe, gong. There’s something very timpanic about the word timpani. What’s the word for that? Orchestronomatopoeia?

Anyway, his Facebook page had this great video of some rim-riffing Beethoven. Be sure and stick around for the harmony in the second half. You reckon that feller could play “Freebird” on them glasses?

The arrangement of all those glasses looks awfully inconvenient. Couldn’t someone build a musical instrument that makes that sound? Yes they could, and that person was Ben Franklin. At one time his glass armonica (also spelled “glass harmonica”) was so popular that Mozart composed for it. Franz “Mesmerism Is Almost My Last Name” Mesmer used the armonica as part of his hypnosis experiments. Then someone started spreading nasty rumors that it caused listeners to go insane*, and the armonica went the way of the theremin. Happily, you can still buy an armonica today, and I was especially pleased to see that the Finkenbeiner Glass Harmonica showroom in nearby Waltham, Mass. is practically in my back yard.

Now here is your musical riddle for the day: why is this woman in 18th century apparel playing a jazz standard on the armonica?

* I don’t think it will actually make you go insane, but I did hear that if you watch this video five times in a row your eyeballs will turn black.

Stalking the wild chartreuse

Let’s say you’re a designer, a coutourier, and you’re trying to figure out what to do for your upcoming spring collection. You’ve been going through the Pantone color swatches, you’ve browsed through the Fashion Color Report (PDF), but nothing seems vivid and alive enough. What to do?


Well, if you’re Issey Miyake, you send a team of color experts on a trip to the Amazon to go hunting for wild colors. There’s something so marvelously obsessive and wacky about this that I can’t help but be impressed. ColourLovers does a nice job breaking it down for us:

Dai and his team traveled with a huge collection of cloth colour samples. They tested these against trees, leaves, bark and mud to find the palette of the forest.

I just love the image of intrepid explorers deep in the jungle, wearing pith helmets and mosquito netting, hard up against the buttressed roots of a ceiba tree, and armed only with … a stack of color swatches.

The Issey Miyake site and full video can be found here.

Galileo’s telescope

It’s been a big year for anniversaries. First we have Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin blowing out 200 candles apiece (were they jealous of each other?), and now comes a Galileo event at twice that span: 400 years. When you put it that way, it’s interesting to consider that Darwin gets you halfway to Galileo. Quick question: if two Darwins buys a Galileo, what can you buy with two Galileos (800 years)? Answer: Cambridge University, which was founded in 1209. So it goes.

But back to Galileo. In fairness, we are talking not about his birth year (1564), but the first year in which he turned his famous telescope upon the heavens. A curious historical footnote is that Galileo did not invent the telescope, but he does seem to have been the first to think to point it straight up. In honor of the events of 1609, this year is to be an International Year of Astronomy. Last weekend witnessed the 100 Hours of Astronomy celebration. Visit their web site to see some fun short videos from observatories around the world in Around the World in 80 Telescopes.

But what about Galileo’s original telescope? You can still find it (or one of its early siblings anyway) at the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence. I’ve been there, and let me tell you it is worth the visit.

As you enter the museum, you see part of an enormous marble dial for a barometer and thermometer that used to sit in the Loggia dei Lanzi in the famous Piazza della Signoria. But, this being Florence, public displays of science gave way to public displays of art, and so the instrument was banished to the museum. On the second floor you can find not only Galileo’s old telescopes, but also, bizarrely, his old finger. It is, in fact, his middle finger, and although Galileo was pardoned by Pope John Paul II in 1992, I would have to guess that it still points at Rome.

Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

French and English have been tied together since William the Conqueror made French the language of royalty in England. Traces of that linguistic shotgun marriage persist. For example, when the peasants fetch the beast from the barnyard, it’s pig, cow and sheep, but by the time Monsieur sees it spiced and steaming on the table, it’s pork, beef, and mutton. This low-rent/high-rent juxtoposition can be striking, as with house and mansion, horseplay and chivalry, freedom fries and french fries, and so on.

Now sit back and enjoy as our very own Star Chamber Language Maven (quick: maven… what language is that from?) Alan Kennedy regales you with still more language yarns, this time on borrowed words in English.


Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

by Alan Kennedy

Linguists use the term “borrowed” to refer to words that come into one language from a second, and get used frequently enough that they become like a first language word. As an example – we don’t really feel like we are speaking Swahili when we say we went on a safari (even though that is a word borrowed from Swahili; it means “journey”). You can often tell that a word has been borrowed from another language because the spelling seems non-English (e.g. tsunami, gesundheit, déjà vu) – but sometimes the non-English origin is not as evident.

When I first mentioned the linguistic notion of “borrowed words” to my wife Karen, she pointed out that it’s kind of a stupid term, because the language users are not planning to give the word back, nor have the originators been left without the word. [Queen Elizabeth to the President of Tanzania: “thanks awfully for letting us use the word safari. It has been ever so useful, but we’re quite done with it now, you may have it back”.]

Similarly, another term for this phenomenon, “loan words” is inaccurate. [We like saying karaoke, and we refuse to give it back to Japan, goddammit! Take baseball in exchange. You’re welcome.]

Nevertheless, linguists use the term “borrowed word” or “loan word” this way, and it is a useful concept, despite the misnomer.

The term borrowing is not usually applied to words with roots from other languages (like Latin and Greek). It refers more to words that not only didn’t come from Old English (a Germanic family language) but which have been taken, whole hog, from some other language and eventually find their way into English dictionaries. Sometimes the words are borrowed just as they are, and sometimes they are modified in spelling or pronunciation to make them more “English-like”. Let’s take cocktails as an example. Vodka comes to us directly from Russian, водка, pronounced quite similarly in that language, and letter-for-letter transliterated into English letters. Whisky, on the other hand, comes from the Gaelic word uisge which means “water” and is pronounced “oosh-kyuh”. (I will make no jokes here about how Scots drink/consider/treat whisky like water, in deference to my hard-working immigrant ancestors).

The language from which English has borrowed the most, by far, is French. A quick glance at a selection of fairly common words which we all know, and which are in the dictionary, makes the case:

adjectives nouns expressions
petite rendezvous debris bon voyage c’est la vie
blasé ballet entrepreneur bon appetite double entendre
gourmet debut mirage déjà vu en masse
beige cliché memoir en route ménage à trois
macabre entourage coup faux pas tour de force
unique genre entrée avant-garde film noir
chic ensemble buffet au contraire carte blanche
risqué> encore protégé cul-de-sac à la carte
sautéed niche boutique encore! nouveau riche
brusque chauffer mystique maître d’ savoir faire

… and this is just a partial list. Note that in almost every case, we English speakers are not pronouncing these words using usual English pronunciation rules. No one rhymes “buffet” or “chalet” with “get” by mistake (or “Chevrolet” for that matter); no one rhymes “corsage” or “sabotage” with “luggage”. We know these French rules so well, that they have become almost like alternative English pronunciation rules. Why do we English speakers borrow so much from French? Well, the Norman Conquest of England has a lot to do with it. And besides that, look at a map – France is England’s close neighbor. In that situation, linguistic borrowing frequently results.

Like all languages, English has borrowed many food words. The reason is perhaps self-evident. Which is easier to say: “I like sliced raw fish placed atop portions of sticky vinegared rice” or “I like sushi”? If people in some foreign locale have created an awesome dish with many ingredients or a specific recipe, it’s convenient to just take their word. Like any other words, some food words are borrowed fully (spaghetti, croissant, baklava) and some are modified a bit as they come into English (pretzel comes from the German bretzl; saffron from the Arabic زعفرانza’faran“). Because food words are so culturally rooted, English speakers have a sense that that they are using borrowed words when they say things like shish kebab (Turkish), smorgasbord (Swedish) or dim sum (Cantonese).

For non-food words, English speakers (according to my informal poll) tend to be less clear about where a loan word has come from. I’m not talking about obvious ones like karaoke or boomerang or aloha. I’m thinking more about words like cobra (Portuguese), robot (Czech), and boondocks (Tagalog). Even if you know a word is a loan word, you may not be able to guess which language. Can you guess where we get the words maven, chimpanzee, or yacht? Give yourself a minute.

O.K., the answers are Yiddish, Bantu (Southern Africa), and Dutch. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know. This stuff is really not considered common knowledge.

Native American Indian languages have contributed many words – not just in place names, but in words that seeped into American English and then became part of English at large. Aside from the culturally rooted terms like moccasin, teepee and tomahawk that we all tend to know, there are many words for animals (e.g. chipmunk, moose, coyote, possum, raccoon, jaguar, cougar) and foods (e.g. pecan, squash, persimmon, avocado) that English speakers did not likely know about until they came to the Americas. Well-known concept words from native American languages include totem (Ojibwa), kayak (Inuit) and pow-wow (Narragansett).

Here’s a little story using borrowed words. Take minute to read it and, if you want, underline words that you think probably came into English directly from another language.

I’m going on vacation next month, and this time I’m really gung-ho to head northward to satisfy my wanderlust. I have visions of cruises in and out of icy fjords, maybe stopping to sled across the tundra. I’m staying in an ice hotel – which even has an indoor health center; I can’t imagine a sauna in an igloo! The last trip I took was a fiasco, really a catastrophe. We went to Bali, thinking it would be a relaxing, angst-free time. The brochure for our resort showed guests in turquoise silk pajamas, eating caviar, shopping in colorful outdoor bazaars and feeding orangutans and giraffes. The reality was a run-down place which bordered a kind of jungle canyon. We had a feeling there was something less than kosher about the place as soon as we drove up. For one thing, it was covered with graffiti. The little kiosk which sold shampoo and things was always closed. Our bungalow was tiny; the bed was more like a futon with a saggy mattress. The room was stuffy but we couldn’t go out onto our patio to get a breeze because the weather seemed to veer between monsoon, typhoon and tornado the entire time.

Ready? here’s the answer:

Word Language Origin
gung-ho, typhoon, silk Mandarin
wanderlust, angst German
cruise Dutch
fjord Norwegian
tundra Russian
sauna Finnish
igloo Inuit (Eskimo)
fiasco, graffiti Italian
catastrophe Greek
turquoise, caviar, kiosk Turkish
bazaar Farsi
orangutan Malay
giraffe, mattress, monsoon Arabic
pajamas, jungle, shampoo, bungalow Hindi
kosher Hebrew
futon Japanese
patio, breeze, canyon, tornado Spanish

I leave you with this final thought: hakuna matata.

No, that saying was not an invention of the Disney Corporation. It’s real Swahili language.

But you knew what it meant, didn’t you?