A temporary break

I’ll be off the next couple of weeks unless I learn something mind-blowingly cool — and let’s be honest, I’m a nerd; it’s not out of the question.

I’ve decided it’s time to re-read some of my very favourite books — time to revisit Elphaba, Glinda, et. al. for a revolution (Wicked is a pretty solid examination of the smaller actors in a revolution who have no real understanding of the bigger picture AND an absolutely brilliant look at where the line is drawn between right and wrong and who gets to be the one to draw it) and play some war games with Ender (while I contemplate whether I’ll see the film) And it might be time to reconnect with my old friends Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (a film that I have not and will never see because seriously, who thought that was a good idea?). And catch up with my first great literary love, Andrei Androfsky (the last time we met, I lived in Prague) and say hello again to Tereza and Tomaš (a film, incidentally, that I couldn’t get through despite my undying love of both this novel, specifically, and Kundera’s library on the whole). 

Lest you think that’s a lot of reading to get done, I’m off to a friend’s beach house for the weekend with a bunch of mutual friends, and then to the lake* to spend some time with my mother’s side of the family followed by a trip to my homeland to spend some time with my dad’s side of the family (and my brother). Ten days is plenty of time to read five books. And if I have time for it, I’ll throw in the Chance family because “three Swedes and three beatniks in bathrobes committing suicide together in a sauna” is never not hilarious.**

*where there is ZERO cell coverage, and there are not words to express how excited I am by that idea.

**Seriously, the entire first church sequence of that book had me howling with laughter. At the time, I was sitting in the living room of the guy I was dating at the time. He had a massive porn collection and not a single thing to read in the entire apartment. That really should have been a red flag. He did not find that sequence funny. Because he was an idiot. He later burned down his ex-wife’s house. True story. (Sorry, mom.)

Not a lesson, but still awesome

Sometimes, usually when I have to wake up early the next morning, my brain does this thing where it refuses to shut off and instead contemplates things that are frequently way outside of my scope of knowledge.

Last week, I went to work on two and a half hours of sleep because between 2am and 5am, my brain was working out the physics of alternate universes. And sorting out how small a percentage of the ever (and exponentially) increasing number of parallel realities I actually exist in. I’m not even kidding. I blame Brian Greene.*

Anyway, Abstruse Goose, which is one of my favourite webcomics, addressed this for me yesterday in a brilliant comic. I’m with you, dude.

*I’m still waiting to get my hands on a copy of that book because a. I like Brian Greene’s other work and b. I want a copy I don’t have to give back, but have a reading list about a mile long, so haven’t gotten there yet.

Lesson #318: Whipping boys

There are a slew of terms in the English language that we, as a society, take for granted. They often have a historical point of reference, but we don’t usually know the point of reference because the historical aspect of it has been swallowed up over a few centuries. Today, I learned about the whipping boy.

The whipping boy was a tradition of the 15th and 16th century English monarchs (the Tudors and Stuarts, mostly). English monarchy held that the king  ruled under the divine right of kings* and, as a result, no one but the king had the right to punish the king’s son(s). And since the king was rarely around to reprimand the prince(s), enter the whipping boy. A whipping boy was a boy assigned to a prince whose duty it was to take punishments intended for said prince if he misbehaved or fell behind in his schooling.

Now, you’d think that this would be perfect for the prince because what’s it to him if someone else is taking his punishments, but the whipping boy was not a peasant. He was a boy of noble birth, close in age to the prince, and brought up and schooled with the prince. As a result, the prince and his whipping boy were usually close friends, which, as you can imagine, is a really effective tool in keeping your prince in line.

Point of interest: Charles I made his whipping boy an Earl.

P.S. Guess who never read The Prince and the Pauper?

More information here and here.

*which stipulates that the monarch rules by divine right and is answerable to no one but God.

Lesson #317: Botulinum

Sometimes, I come about my lessons in very, very indirect ways. I got to botulism by way of Mithridates VI of Pontus who, according to Appian’s Roman History, attempted suicide by poison in 63 BCE only to find that this lifelong paranoia and subsequent ingestion of small doses of a variety of poisons left him immune to the poisons’ effects. In the end, one of his bodyguards beheaded Mithridates at his request.*

This got me to wondering what the most deadly toxin is. I was hoping for something exciting and different. I got botulism. Which is neither exciting nor different.

It’s not all glamour.

*On the other hand, Cassius Dio’s Roman History describes Mithridates’ death as murder, but I prefer the one that immediately makes me think of the man in black’s immunity to iocane powder.




Lesson #316: If.

Sometimes, the most random things get triggered in my brain. I wrote the title to this post and immediately thought of e.e. cummings, which seemed…odd. But the interwebs tell me there’s a good reason for this and it involves a poem I had never seen before today, though I have clearly, at some point, seen the title and absorbed the information at least enough to recall, at random, both that it’s a poem that exists and the name of its author. 

“If.” is quite possibly my favourite laconic phrase, at which the Spartans were such masters the entire concept — and adjective — is named for them.* In the post-300 world, I’m sure we’re all familiar with Sparta’s most famous laconic phrase, “molon labe” (or at least its translation, “come and take [them]”), and most of us have, at one time, heard “because only Spartan women give birth to men” and/or “with your shield or on it” and/or “my father’s common sense”, but I had somehow never read the “if” response until today. I was amused.

Having brought most of the Greek city-states under his control, sometime in the mid 340s BCE, Philip the II of Macedonia sent a message to Sparta that said either, “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever” or “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city” (depending on what you read). Sparta’s response: “If.”

Since Philip wasn’t an idiot, he steered well clear of Sparta, as did his son, Alexander the Great, who chose instead to literally go halfway to China rather than take a run at Sparta.

The moral of the story: if the greatest conqueror the world has ever known and his vast, vast army want nothing to do with going to war with your city-state based on a one-word response to some trash talk, you’re doing something right.

More here and here. General historical information on Sparta here.

*What we know from our history texts as the city-state Sparta was actually the state of Laconia, of which the city Sparta was its adminitrative capital.


The interwebs are riddled with misinformation. In part because people are lazy and can’t be bothered to spend more than 30 seconds fact-checking. And because many, many myths have been perpetuated across such a vast part of cyberspace by a bunch of people who are too lazy to do their homework, finding the truth requires a bit of work.

In looking for new information to write a lesson on, I read earlier today that the lance takes its name from Lancelot. Which, let’s be honest, is completely. effing. absurd. Not just because I have more than a basic grasp of language and history, but also because I have a functioning brain in my head.

Admittedly, the English word “lance” comes from the 12th century French word*, and Lancelot’s first appearance in literature comes from a 12th century French poem (Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charrette), but let’s be reasonable and use our brains just for the few seconds it takes to process this information logically, yeah? As much as I hate the phrase “correlation does not imply causation” because it tends to oversimplify complex ideas (and be used by smug internet trolls who think they’re smarter and better than everyone else), in this case, it fits. Just because these two things both happened in the 12th century — which is not an insignificant amount of time — does not make one the cause of the other.

So…this is my plea to question everything you read that isn’t cited (which is why everything you’ll ever read on this blog is cited** with reliable sources that aren’t (usually) Wikipedia) and/or everything your friends, however smart, tell you at random, especially when it sounds impossibly convenient. People are morons who regurgitate information because they like to seem smart, but can’t be bothered to open a book or do five minutes of research. And they do it without repercussions online, and that makes everyone a bit dumber. Don’t be lazy; do your research. Or at least find a reliable source to do your research for you.

My guiding principle both as regards this site and my life in general is: sources or GTFO.

*which, incidentally, means “to throw,” and that makes perfect sense if you devote even a quarter of a second of thought to it.

**with the exception of revolutionary theory, which is my area of expertise…I won’t give you specific references, but I will give you the sources you need to look it up for yourself.

Lesson #315: Anti-Language

While I was reading up on Boontling the other day, I accidentally also learned that anti-language is a thing. And since I find language interesting and Boontling is an anti-language (with a very, very interesting history; seriously, go check it out), I figured I’d embrace the broader lesson.

Basically, anti-language is any spoken dialect designed to keep outsiders, well, out. Cockney rhyming slang is probably the best known example of an anti-language, but my knowledge of the concept (without knowing that it was anti-language) is grypsera, which is a dialect of Polish used in the (Polish, obviously) prison system and has Russian, Ukrainian, German, and Yiddish influences.* Other well known examples are CB radio slang and the old thieves’ cant.

Anti-language should not be confused with a straight dialect.** Speakers of different dialects have a common starting point, but speakers of anti-language have designed their dialects to keep the average person out of the loop by speaking in a form of code. The anti-language often re-appropriates words from their common meaning to something else or borrow from other languages. Boontling borrows words from Gaelic; in grypsera, if someone is a “bat” it means he’s blind.

If you’re interested, the original article on anti-language, which was defined by M.A.K. Halliday in 1976, is available to read here.

*I have some very, very random knowledge bouncing around in my brain.

**For example, there’s a fairly significant difference between the French that I speak and the French my continental friends do, but we still speak the same language. What differs are the words we use for certain things. I use fin de semaine and magasiner for “weekend” and “shopping,” respectively, whereas they use the continental vernacular, which just happens to be English. But we also use different French words for the same thing (they use mec to mean “guy” where I use gars), while other times the same French word has different meanings depending on where you are (they use les gosses to mean “kids,” but that means something entirely different — testicles — in Canadian French). Also, and this has never made sense to me, stop signs in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France (as well, I imagine, as the French speaking parts of Switzerland) say “STOP.” In Quebec, they say “ARRÊT.”