Tuesday, June 29, 2010

centrifugal vs. centripetal

centrifugal: Moving away from a center of rotation.
centripetal: Moving toward a center of rotation.

Remember that a centrifuge is a machine that separates liquid compounds, such as blood, by spinning them. The heavier elements of the compound move away from the center, separating from the lighter elements (in the case of blood, it separates into hemoglobin and plasma). Most carnival rides that involve spinning rely on centrifugal force to keep you from falling off the ride.

I cannot think of a single thing that uses centripetal force. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, centripetal is used in botany to describe certain flower clusters that develop inward instead of outward. Perhaps that is how you can remember the difference, by linking flower petals with centripetal.

Can you think of a common example of centripetal force? Meanwhile, I'm going to enjoy the rush of centrifugal force on the teacup ride.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Feed: A Premature Evaluation

Last night, while I was shopping for birthday gifts for my elder son, I found Border's big display of "required school reading," presumably pulled together from reading lists of actual local high school English classes. I recognized most of the titles, but a new one stood out for me: M.T. Anderson's Feed.

Considering that it shared shelf space with the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Giver and others; and considering that it had a silver "National Book Award Finalist" medal on the cover (and it seems to have won a few literary awards Out West); and considering that the back-cover synopsis sounded like the story was from my favorite literary genre, dystopian fiction; and considering that it was only $8.00 for a trade paperback, I went ahead and bought it.

I don't buy books for myself as often as I used to. I must be out of practice, because the one thing I did not do that I certainly should have done was read a bit of the actual text before I made my purchase decision. Because, ten minutes later, while waiting for my sushi to arrive, I pulled out my new book and found this:

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arkwater was like, "I'm so null," and Marty was all, "I'm null too, unit," but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we'd go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel there and go dancing.

Before I get into the teen-speak language, I want to point out a couple other things. First, you'll notice that Anderson is creating a new slang vocabulary, a la A Clockwork Orange. Null here basically means "bored." Unit is the word for "man," and the characters in this novel use unit as teenagers today use the word man; it isn't always used to refer to a male human, as in "Give it a chance, unit." (Women, or at least teenage women, are referred to as unettes. This type of wordplay I like.)

I have nothing against creating a new language as part of a story's setting, but in a story like this, it seems somehow more unoriginal than in A Clockwork Orange, Dune, or The Lord of the Rings, for reasons I discuss at the end of this post.

Second is the sentence structure and word choice. The first four sentences are short, opinionated, self-centered, and unnecessarily vulgar. They immediately brought to mind The Catcher in the Rye. And indeed, you don't have to look too far to find similarities between Holden Caulfield and Titus, the main character and narrator of Feed. It also irks me a bit that the names Link Arkwater (from Feed) and Ward Stradlater (from Catcher in the Rye) have the same rhythm and cadence, not to mention the same final letters.

Perhaps that's a drawback of being well-read: It's too easy to find fragments of the classics in new works. As I read Feed and other new fiction, I'm always seeing bits of other well-known books instead of the author's own writing. In Feed, for example, I keep seeing the aforementioned The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange, as well as Yevgeny Zamiatin's We and the sexual parts of 1984. Granted, I'm not even halfway through yet, so I could be surprised later on.

But back to the subject I postponed earlier: the writing style. As an editor, I find this book difficult to read without cringing. Take a look at that fifth sentence again: "Link Arkwater was like, 'I'm so null,' and Marty was all, 'I'm null too, unit,' but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them." This sentence (a) is a run-on; (b) uses the "teen-speak" that I can barely stand to listen to, much less read; (c) uses the filler like.

If this sentence is any indication of the language of the entire novel, as it is turning out to be, then I am in for a long, rough ride if I am to finish reading it.

I am amazed that this was featured on a list of required reading. Presumably, some English teacher somewhere is teaching this book in class. It must be difficult to teach kids how to write well when you have them reading stuff like Feed because it breaks so many of the "rules" that you're trying to teach them. What are teenagers supposed to believe when you tell them, on the one hand, not to write in run-ons, not to use the fillers that you use in speech (except in dialogue), and not to simply write the way you speak, and then, on the other hand, have them read an award-nominated book that breaks those rules? How important could those "rules" be if one can become a successful writer while breaking them?

As an adult, editor, and avid reader, I understand style, and how writing like this can suit the story better than "standard English." But teenagers — many of whom already hate English class and are always on the lookout for justification of that hatred — haven't yet developed a sense of critical literary analysis. It takes experience and introspection.

And I still haven't concluded myself that the writing style in Feed is an improvement and not a detriment.

A few dozen pages in, and I'm leaning toward the vulgar teen-speak as being detrimental, or at least badly done. It's obvious that Anderson has thought about the language that his characters would use in this future time, but I don't think he gave it enough thought. He has created a new vocabulary, but he hasn't considered the other natural changes that language would have gone through during the time it took for his new language to take hold.

Take the filler like, for instance. I don't believe* that teenagers 40 years ago used like to mean said. That, I believe*, arose during the 1970s. It was used throughout the 1980s even more than it is today. Would teenagers 40 years from now still be using it in this way? I don't think so.* Same goes with "...and Marty was all..." to indicate a person's spoken reply. Even the use of pretty as an intensifier here is questionable. (To Anderson's favor, though, he does also use the new word meg, as in mega-, as an intensifier elsewhere in the book.)

This mixture of today's teen-speak with Anderson's futuristic vocabulary is, I think, why his new vocabulary falls short. It's different, but still rudimentarily employed; it isn't whole-hog realistically futuristic. If it's possible for science fiction to be anachronistic, this book's language manages it.

Still, I'm not yet halfway through reading this book. These are just my first impressions*, and maybe I'm rushing to judgment. Maybe Anderson is setting up a satire of youth's failure to recognize its own naivete. I hope to be surprised by what I find in later pages. I am dedicated to finishing this book, though, if only so that my $8 doesn't go to waste.

* As always, though, I could be wrong.

[Update 8/16 -- quite a while after actually finishing the novel: My early impressions still generally hold. The language is, above all, unnecessarily vulgar, especially considering the target audience, as if the author has something to prove by raising the "fuck" count of the text.

Although the novel has some merit, it falls short of the insightful, meritorious story that it could have been. Anderson created some situations that could have been meant as red herrings, or could have been meant as signs of mental and technological collapse, but came off (at least to me) as being dropped plot threads.

In particular, the female lead, Violet, is positive that someone from outside tried to hack into her feed one night, and the automated customer service is no help at all. when I got to that point in the story, I was ready for the intrigue to really take off, to discover secret lives and hidden truths, to find that the anti-establishment fight was more active than people really thought. But that situation lives in a single chapter and is substantially never mentioned again.

Anderson instead takes active outside forces (forces of truth, perhaps?) out of the equation and reverts to the detrimental effects of passive acceptance of social definitions of normality. Which, I grant you, isn't necessarily a bad issue to tackle in a novel like this.

On the whole, though, this novel left me wanting more. In a world marked by extreme superficiality, the characters were sufficiently two-dimensional, but the setting as a whole could have benefited from more development and depth. This was indeed a story of man vs. society, but the underdevelopment of the story's setting made "society" too monolithic, too static.

Be warned, too, that the conclusion is bleak. I'm not going to make an qualitative judgments about that, though. On alternate days, I think that it is realistically bleak, and therefore more truthful than any alternative, and pessimistically bleak, and therefore lacking that thing that makes good literature great: the ability to teach us how to be better humans.]

Friday, June 18, 2010


advertorial = advertisement + editorial

In print publishing, an advertorial is an advertisement "disguised" as an editorial or other article. There might actually be some informational content in there, but it is all bent toward convincing the reader to buy a particular product.

I suppose I really should stop being surprised by how old some of these portmanteau words are, as if only in the last 30 years or so have people used and enjoyed wordplay. Advertorial has appeared in dictionaries my entire life and has been in use since before my grandfathers were born. It appears, for instance, unabashedly in the May 1914 issue of Kansas City's The Rotarian (page 14) in a subtitle: "A Word to the Women Folk: An Advertorial by Kansas City's Rotary Ad Man."

Outside of the world of marketing, a lay person might not be so gallant to announce that an article is really an advertorial. I, for one, find it difficult to even think, much less say, the word advertorial without rolling my eyes. There's more than enough real stuff to read, I don't need to waste my time getting knee-deep in an advertorial before I realize I should just turn the page.

Other Google Book searches turned up a number of false positives, which is a frustrating find. There were a few actual positives from the 19th century. I didn't look at all of them, but a sample shows that many of these either (a) are in Latin or (b) use advertorial to mean something akin to adversarial.

Had I a decent historical dictionary nearby, I might look to see if this was a common use of this word. But I don't. So I can't.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


scanlation = scan + translation

I just discovered this one today in this About.com article. Scanlation refers to illegally scanning, translating, and posting online manga, including brand new, hot-off-the-presses manga books from Japan. It's a lot like what Google Books is doing, only there's no patina of working with publishers or doing it for the greater good. Scanlation sites now get enough visitors to make them profitable, through ad posting. None of these profits are shared with publishers or manga authors, and the newly formed Japanese Digital Comic Association claims that legitimate manga publishers are losing money to these sites.

Scanlation is digital piracy, plain and simple.

A warning about the link above: The article highlights some user comments about the issue. These can be very frustrating. As always there are those who think that (a) everything on the Internet should be free; (b) everything in print should be on the Internet; and (c) publishing is not and shouldn't be a profit-making endeavor. Whenever I read comments like that, I just have to try to imagine that whoever posted it has never had a job.


churnalism = churn + journalism

An apt portmanteau for the result of the Internet's 24-hour news cycle. There are people out there who are gainfully employed in churning out "journalism" based on press releases and Twitter memes, often without any fact-checking or corroboration.

The fate of news agencies in the Web 2.0 age is in flux. Some believe that paid journalists will soon be a thing of the past, since everyone and their mother can (and does) post "news" as soon as it happens, and that news is then proliferated across the Web.

I can only hope that this is will not be the case. We need honest-to-blog investigative journalists to get the real story and check the facts, or we will quickly be led astray. Twitter and its ilk does have its place in disseminating information -- though it sometimes is misinformation -- but it cannot replace true journalism.

As Mashable CEO and founder Pete Cashmore recently put it: "I first learned Michael Jackson died on Twitter, but I also learned Justin Bieber died on Twitter."

Find out more about churnalism from Word Spy.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Today's Word: widdershins

widdershins: Counterclockwise, left-handed, in a contrary motion to the sun, or in a contrary way. Most of the early examples of the use of the word deal with superstitions and witchcraft. One of the earlier examples appears in George Sinclair's 1685 Satan's Invisible World Discovered, which appears to be a collection of stories of people's horrifying and true experiences with Satanic cults:

The Night was still and calme, as an Summers evening, without the least appearance of Change, when upon a sudden at midnight, as James Fleming himself was coursing her too and again, as the custome was, holding her by the hand, I say upon a sudden, a terrible tempest, like an Hirricano came on, which took the roof from the house, to their great consternation. And a voice was heard three times, calling her by a strange name to come away. At which she made three several loups upward increasing gardually, till her feet were as high as his breast. But he held her by both her armes, and as he used to say, when he spoke of it) he betooched himself strongly and earnestly to God, though with great amazement, his hair standing Widdershins in his head. And after the third call, he prevailed against the greatest Effort, which ever he felt, and threw her on the ground, she groveling and fomeing like one having the falling-sickness . . .

This certainly shows the word in a spooky, phantasmagorical light, but even in this context it could mean just about anything. Elsewhere in the book, we read about one young lady's experience with a Satanic cult in which Satan himself — in the likeness of man — brings her into the fold. After a long list of names of people in attendance, we get this little gem:

The women made first their courtesy to their Maister [Satan], and then the men. The men turned nine time Widder-shines about, and the Women six times. Iohn Fein blew up the Kirk doors, and blew in the lights, which wer like Mickl black candles sticking round about the Pulpit.

Widdershins is also a Pagan community newspaper in the Pacific northwest, a Celtic band in Oregon, and, of course, a blog.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


spillionaire = spill + millionaire

A spillionaire is a lawyer who makes a ton of money suing or defending big oil following an oil spill, or a person who receives a large settlement because of an oil spill.

I had presumed that this was coined recently in the wake of the BP oiling-the-Gulf fiasco, but Word Spy has a citation from 1999, referring to the Exxon Valdez spill.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


tragicomedy (or tragi-comedy) = tragic + comedy

I am totally surprised by how old this portmanteau word is. In fact, it's older than the phrase portmanteau word! It goes back at least to the 17th century, when British poet Abraham Cowley penned "Colonel Tuke's Tragi-Comedy, The Adventures of Five Hours." It appears in 1822's The British Poets. Including Translations. Volume XIII: Cowley, Vol. I. In this case, I think "translation" means that the spelling and punctuation have been standardized (but hopefully not bowdlerized), considering how closely the spelling and punctuation of this poem matches today's expectations compared with other written works of the 17th century.

At any rate, here's the poem in its entirety:

Colonel Tuke's Tragicomedy,

The Adventures of Five Hours

As when our kings (lords of the spacious main)
Take in just wars a rich plate-fleet of Spain,
The rude unshapen ingots they reduce
Into a form of beauty and of use;
On which the conqueror's image now does shine,
Not his whom it belong'd to in the mine:
So, in the mild contentions of the Muse
(The war which Peace itself loves and pursues)
So have you home to us in triumph brought
The cargason of Spain with treasures fraught.
You have not basely gotten it by stealth,
Nor by translation borrow'd all its wealth;
But by a powerful spirit made it your own;
Metal before, money by you 'tis grown.
'Tis current now, by your adorning it
With the fair stamp of your victorious wit.
  But, though we praise this voyage of your mind,
And though ourselves enrich'd by it we find;
We're not contented yet, because we know
What greater stores at home within it grow.
We've seen how well you foreign ores refine;
Produce the gold of your own nobler mine:
The world shall then our native plenty view,
And fetch materials for their wit from you;
They all shall watch the travails of your pen,
And Spain on you shall make reprisals then.

God Love's Apostrophe's

This picture is too good on so many levels.
First, in the realm of grammar and usage, there's the overabundance of apostrophes. (In case you're wondering, there should be exactly one apostrophe on this sign, in "Jehovah's Witnesses.") Then there's the missing period in "P.K's." (When I was growing up, P.K. stood for "Preacher's Kid." Really?)

I wish I knew the context of this sign, because the list is so eclectic. I can see why a right-wing religious nut might wonder why athiests, agnostics, abortionists, racists, pagans, and adulterers love the devil, and I can see the politics behind hating feminists, liberals, environmentalists, and democrats. But really, drunkards? Effeminate men? Emos??? Sports nuts?!?!

I'm guessing that whoever made this sign made it a little too long and then had to brainstorm for things to fill it up with. Then again, I'm just a God-hating high fullutent sophisticated swine, so what do I know?

Follow this link to see some more great vintage over-the-top Christian propaganda.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Today's Words: marmoreal or marmorean

marmoreal or marmorean: Of or relating to marble or to marble statues. Can be used to describe one's personality as cold or aloof. Thus, the following sonnet by Aubrey de Vere, reviewed on p. 605 of The Westminster Review, Feb–May 1843:
Count each affliction, whether light or grave,
God's messenger sent down to thee. Do thou
with courtesy receive him: rise and bow;
And ere his shadow pass thy threshold, crave
Permission first his heavenly feet to lave.
Then lay before him all thou hast. Allow
No cloud of passion to usurp thy brow,
Or mar thy hospitality, no wave
Of mortal tumult to obliterate
The soul's marmoreal calmness. Grief should be
Like joy, majestic, equable, sedate;
Confirming, cleansing, raising, making free;
Strong to consume small troubles; to commend
Great thoughts, grave thoughts, thoughts lasting to the end.
This isn't a great poem. "[H]is heavenly feet to lave" just falls completely flat, a contrived rhyme. "To lave" means, in this case, "to wash." This line makes me think of Miracle Max's (i.e., Billy Crystal's) lines from The Princess Bride: "...he distinctly said 'to blave' and as we all know, to blave means to bluff, heh? So you were probably playing cards, and he cheated --"

Notice also how the author slips in an extra syllable to get marmoreal to fit, fudging on the iambic pentameter.

The reviewer of this poem states that a soul can't have "marmoreal calmness." I don't know that I'd go as far to say it's impossible. What I think the poet is going for is calmness and coolness like a marble statue. It's really hard to get a big pretty hunk of rock riled up.