Monthly Archives: April 2013

Fermented Apples and a Cheap Date

filthy_students_room

This is a gross room.

This week I was searching Washington hospital websites to look at job openings, and I ran across a job called “Gross Room Technician”. In the Pathology Department. I thought “Wow, that must call for a particular personality type.”

What the gross room really is, I found out, is where pathologists examine specimens by eye instead of with the microscope. Because looking at things without a microscope requires larger pieces, and because one of the meanings of “gross” is large, this is called gross examination. For most people even being in the Pathology Department probably would be pretty gross. (I attended an autopsy once, when I was a medical lab student. I didn’t call it gross—I called it philosophically unnerving.)

That job title reminded me of something I thought of writing about last fall, some of the strange language of scientists. We often think of scientists as wearing white coats and having weird hair and getting excited about stuff that makes other people think, “Are you really…?” And that’s all true. In addition, they sometimes do odd things with language.

Too often, and unfortunately, scientists will name something so badly that the name alone makes it harder to learn forever. On other happier occasions, some quirky young scientist will get an idea sitting in a bar late at night, and apparently the rule is, if you find it, you can call it whatever you damn well want.

Thus, for instance, there is a type of protein found in many animals (from flies to humans, given that we have so much in common), that leads to thick bristles over the eyes, like the eyebrows of Grouch Marx. When you think about it, the protein is probably named as much for those fake Groucho glasses as for the real person. It’s a real name, though, as you can see from this science-y sounding definition: “Groucho proteins: transcriptional corepressors for specific subsets of DNA-binding transcription factors in vertebrates and invertebrates.” Yeah, alright, that took the fun out of it.

Here are a few more examples of different types of things with interesting names:

Chemical names:

  • luciferase—a group of proteins involved in the process of giving off light, as with fireflies
  • bastardane—a chemical compound with an unusual structure (from “bastard child”)
  • draculin—a chemical compound found in the saliva of vampire bats

Living organisms:

  • Lepidocephalichthys zeppelini—a species of fish named after the band Led Zeppelin
  • Adonnadonna primadonna—a fossil algae named after a song from 1963

Genes:

There are many genes—a plethora, a beatitude, a bazillion—and scientists need to call them something. Most genes have horribly dull names, like CPX12, but here are some exceptions. These are all genes variations found in fruit flies.

  • cheap date gene—leads to flies that are especially sensitive to alcohol
  • Ken and Barbie gene—leads to both male and female flies with no external genitalia
  • Tinman gene—leads to flies that develop without a heart
  • hedgehog gene—leads to short hairy larvae, and a protein that comes from this gene has been named Sonic hedgehog after the video game

You see how much fun science can be? Especially at the bar afterward. I should have been a scientist and discovered stuff. Man, I bet I could think of some names that would make the thick bristles over your eyes stand straight up.

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The Fabulosity of the Writing Life

The Human Show
Most days my real life begins about 5:00 in the evening. That’s when I stop whatever trivial nonsense related to survival has littered my day—job hunting, thinking about job hunting without actually doing anything, checking email for the 34th time, making the bed, going to the store. But at 5:00 mere survival stops and life begins.

Painting of a coffee drinker

A reward for still being here at the end of the day

That’s when I put aside the drudgery of the day and enter a world of creativity and imagination and thought. I pack up the computer, go to a coffee shop, buy a medium coffee, and lose myself in the world that exists in a short story or a novel that I’m working on. From then on, aside from dinner, the evening is devoted to writing.

As I write the first part of this blog entry I’m in a coffee shop on Tuesday, where I like to watch the people. Some of those people are women, which is especially interesting, but anyone can be notable from the right point of view. A family will walk by occasionally, and it’s remarkable how often little girls are leaping up and down as they pass. They seem to be on springs, or to contain some sort of spasmodic programming to leap. Occasionally you can see from the demeanor of the parents that they can’t even remember a time in their life when they had that sort of energy.

A baby in a carriage just smiled and waved at me. I didn’t make that up. This is a baby still at the Cheerios stage, and such social interaction was a little surprising. Two young women are talking, perhaps around twenty years old, and one grew so excited at some piece of news that she danced a few steps in place. I feel a bit like dancing myself, to see the bright orange dress another woman is wearing. That dress is short and tight and rightly so, and Jesus up in Heaven must be thinking “Ohhh, Daddy!”

In addition to watching people, I actually do concentrate and get some writing done in coffee shops. I understand that trying to write in such a place wouldn’t work for everyone, that the distractions would make it impossible, but my mind operates in such a way that I seem to like occasional distractions. Working in coffee shops, I’ve written stories, song lyrics, parts of novels, blog entries, newspaper columns, and maybe some useful things as well. Or maybe not.

Four Flowers
It seems odd to me, but F. Scott Fitzgerald is buried in Rockville, Maryland, where I live. This afternoon I finally sought out his grave, after having lunch with a friend. I did this only eight months after I first intended to look for it. I thought the grave was at a small Catholic church nearby, so I went to the graveyard, which is really small, and at first I wondered if I was mistaken, as I saw nothing indicating Famous Writer’s Grave. And then there it was, and I had that slight shock you get from seeing the name of someone well known, who you’ve heard about so many times, carved onto that stone.

A slab lies across the grave, and on top of the slab I saw two long-stem yellow roses, three folded notes, and quite a few coins. The roses were lying on a letter with the inscription “To F. Scott Fitzgerald”. I wondered whether I would be violating some sort of privacy if I read it, but since he’s dead, I went ahead. The writer of the letter was very unhappy when writing it and was hoping through a connection with Fitzgerald to find some relief. I noted that the letter was truly written to Fitzgerald, as if he would read it.

As I was leaving the graveyard I saw tiny pink flowers growing among the graves, so I picked two, went back, and laid them on the letter for the writer.

Or Maybe a Korean Quilting Book
The worst thing I know, other than meals with no garlic, is to be completely without a book, like some kind of wild animal. Even though the world is filled with more books than grains of sand, I have always found it difficult to have enough books to read. When I’m close to finishing a book I think “Uh oh, what will I read next.”

I used to have a friend giving me books, which was helpful, but then I moved away. A few days ago I decided—don’t even ask why on this—that I want to read Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian who lived 1225 to 1274, thank you Wikipedia. I was thinking (clear proof that I’m a dopey ex-academic) that I would simply go and get such a book.

Sure. Sure I would. I went to the local public library, where I could find such things as a book on 30-minute recipes in Russian, or a book on investing in Spanish, or Danielle Steele translated into Chinese, but no medieval theologians. I’m sure you’re as surprised as I am.

So I guess I won’t know what Thomas Aquinas had to say. Instead I’ll go sit in coffee shops, speculate on the souls of women in tight dresses, and write short stories that will just break your heart with their sweet evocation of being human. That’s what I think I’ll do.

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The Magical Outie of the Earth

Drawings of male and female body

Source of inspiration

The ancient Greeks had a story that the big daddy god Zeus once sent two eagles flying across the earth, apparently in straight lines that would intersect. The spot where their paths crossed was the center of the world. In Greek, the word for that spot is omphalos, which means “navel”, or “belly button” if you like that better. By good luck, the omphalos of the earth just happened to be at Delphi, at the spot where a huge temple was dedicated to the god Apollo.

Tweren’t so long ago I wrote a blog entry about the fact that metaphors show up in the language working from our basic perception of the world. The basic idea of a metaphor is to compare what is familiar with what is unfamiliar, and the Greek idea of the omphalos as a center reflects a very interesting source of metaphors. If we use what is familiar to compare things (and thus to create metaphors), what is more familiar to us than something that is with us always—our own body?

Stone omphalos at Delphi

Omphalos at Delphi

The condition of our body over time, and how we feel about that condition, gives rise to the metaphor I talked about before, “up is good, down is bad”. In a different way, the various parts of our body are also a source for a rich plethora of metaphors in describing the world around us. This is true not only for ancient cultures, like the belly button of the world, but for new things as we continue to create them, like the nose of a rocket.

Below I’m listing some examples of metaphors from different body parts. Mostly I’ve got nouns, but a few verbs as well. There are many, many more possibilities than what I’m using here. Some body parts I couldn’t quickly think of an example for, but I’m including them because maybe you will. (Since this blog might be read before the kids go to bed, I’ve left off some of the more interesting parts of the body. Feel free to write those words on the screen with a magic marker once the kids leave the room.)

Head and Neck

hair–angel hair pasta; head–head of the class; nose–nose of airplane; eye–eye of a needle, eye of a storm; ear–ear of corn; mouth–mouth of a bottle, mouth of a river; chin–??; neck–neck of land; face–face of a clock, (verb) face a problem; cheek–??; tongue–tongue of a shoe

Torso

chest–chest of drawers; back–back of a room; body–body of water, body of an essay; shoulder–shoulder of the road; stomach–(verb) stomach his presence

Limbs

thigh–??; arm–arm of a chair; leg–leg of that same chair; elbow–elbow joint pipe; knee–??; hand–(verb) hand off a job; finger–(verb) finger a criminal; palm–??; foot–foot of the bed; toe–(verb) toe the line

Internal organs

heart–heart of a problem, heart of the country, heart of an issue; kidney–??; liver–lily-livered coward; lungs–??; guts–the guts to face a bully

Let’s see what we can do with some of these metaphors in a short creative piece:

The plane passed overhead, flashing in the sunlight that would soon be gone, as we could see heavy dark clouds rolling toward us from the west. The nose of the small plane dipped, then rose again as the pilot circled back around before landing on the body of the water. From where we stood on the deck, we had a good view of the landing, as our cabin was on a narrow neck of land where the mouth of the river emptied into the lake. Amy glanced at the face of the clock and said, “Six o’clock. That must be Roy.” She pushed against the arms of her chair and stood. “He’ll be up here soon. I’ll go put the pasta on, so it’ll be ready.” She was fixing angel hair with chicken and tomatoes, knowing Roy liked that, and since he brought the mail, we liked to keep him happy. I saw that the plane was approaching our dock. “He’s lucky he got down,” I said. “The eye of that storm will be passing over in a half hour.”

I used eight of the body metaphors there. I know it’s not great writing, but don’t get too critical. Don’t be an ass.

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Believe Me Because I Want You To

Cartoon of the devil

Here’s why you should trust me.

Trust me. In his book on rhetoric, Aristotle laid out three basic methods of persuasion. One was logic, which, as I always told my writing classes, is effective with an intelligent reasonable audience. As I also told them, since an intelligent reasonable audience is so rare, there is a second method, of using emotion. As examples of this method, we can cite 98% of all advertising and 99% of political campaigns. It works.

By far the most interesting method Aristotle discussed is related to the credibility of the speaker or writer. Our technical term for this in studies of rhetoric is “ethos”. This is actually one of the most critically important aspects of rhetoric. If someone is simply brilliant and has a golden tongue for words, but you totally don’t trust a word they say, then what they say doesn’t matter.

There are various kinds of built-in ethos, such as sitting in a doctor’s office and trusting whatever stranger walks in with a white coat on. Another kind of ethos may be still more interesting, as it comes basically from what the writer or speaker says right there on the spot, trying to create that trust by sounding trustable, whatever that might mean to the audience.

On Tuesday this week within a couple of hours I saw the word “guaranteed” used twice in reference to food products. Once was on a box of some very generic-looking cereal, and at the top of the box was the phrase “Guaranteed Value”. The other usage was a guarantee regarding satisfaction with a container of store-baked cookies.

I’m pretty sure the word “guaranteed” did not actually mean anything in these contexts. I doubt that anyone is going to take that generic box of cereal, regardless of what they paid for it, and think “Hey, this isn’t real value. I should claim that guarantee.” What would the guarantee consist of? (Under the circumstances where I saw the box, it was especially unlikely, as I spent Tuesday volunteering at a food bank, so the “value” in that case was free.)

With the cookies, which were on the breakroom table for food bank staff, maybe the guarantee is backed up, sort of. Maybe you really could take those cookies back to the store, go to customer service, and say, “I’m not entirely satisfied. I don’t know, they’re just…they could be better.” OK, the store might say, here’s your two dollars back. Probably not costing the store a lot of money.

Putting the word “guaranteed” on these cheap products must be almost entirely rhetorical, trying to persuade people to buy with an appeal to ethos. You can trust us, and we promise this will be good. A strong ethos really does work, but are these strange examples effective? Does anyone look at a box of generic cereal (or a box of anything made on the planet Earth) and see the phrase “Guaranteed Value” and think “Hmm, in that case I guess I’ll buy it”?

Obviously someone thought it might work. Or maybe they didn’t think about it all, maybe it just looked good up there at the top of the box. Speaking as a professional writer, which I’m willing to do in spite of not being paid very often, I declare that the world is filled with weak, careless writing, even on cereal boxes.

You’ve probably also been in this world long enough to hear someone begin a sentence with “Trust me…” or “Believe me…” We also see this in writing. Speaking again as a professional writer, I want to bang my head on the wall when I see this. I always think “Are your readers such morons they will believe you just because you say to?” Though I guess I hate to contemplate the probability of the answer.

In an article from 2008, the political strategist David Canzini gave advice to would-be politicians, including the very specific advice “Don’t say ‘trust me’”. In a chat room I also found a discussion of whether or not you would trust anyone who uses that phrase. In fact, saying “trust me” is sloppy lazy rhetoric. Instead of giving actual reasons for trust, the phrase somewhat assumes that the audience members are stupid and will trust merely because they are told to.

So if you want to sell cereal or run for office, tell us how crunchy it is and how you plan to fill potholes. I mean…crunchy, I want crunchy. And I hate potholes.

That’s better rhetoric. I guarantee it.

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