May 22, 2015

Why Isn’t the Plural of Asparagus “Asparagi”? And 5 Other Questions for the Modern Man, Woman, Child and Robot

1. Why Isn’t the Plural of Asparagus “asparagi”? 

Focus in the plural is foci. For nucleus, you have nuclei. But asparagus? Oh noooo, the word asparagus must diverge. It must taint the language with the plebeian form "asparaguses." Ach. To my chagrin, I learned that asparagus has replaced the Old English word sparagi. But how? Only gods and philologists know.

2. Why platypuses?

The scientific name for the platypus is Ornithorhynchus anatinus. It means — are you ready for this? — duck-like bird snout. People also call the platypus by its full name, "duck-billed platypus," as opposed to the shovel-billed platypus, the colander-billed platypus, or the donkey-powered-helicopter-billed platypus.

3. Why did they call Vivaldi "The Red Priest"?

Venice suffered an earthquake on the day Vivaldi was born. That very day, Vivaldi's mother decided he would take holy orders. He became a priest at age 25, and earned the nickname "Il Prete Rosso" (the red priest) thanks to the color of his hair.

You can listen to a creative interpretation of Vivaldi's "Summer" right here.

Birdhouse Revisited
by Laura Graves

4.  Why, why, why do we need a new Poltergeist?

The original film was not perfect, not a masterpiece, and it boasts more than a handful of unintelligent scenes. But does this story need to be told more poorly, with more impressive special effects taking the place of character development? I'm thinking back to the Evil Dead remake, which makes the original look like an Orson Welles.

Hollywood doesn't just underestimate you, however. It also thinks that movies need to be dumbed down for foreign audiences — a bizarre notion, because human brains are equally capable anywhere on Earth; we're a single species, Homo sapiens sapiens. Besides, Europe alone has directors like Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar, Wim Wenders, Marc Rothemund... All of whom make sophisticated movies for demanding audiences.

5. If I glue an alligator to a bear, do I get a beargator?

No. You get two dead animals.

6. What's a good, non-dairy source of calcium?

Raw kale, garlic and arugula (rocket). The word kale, by the way, comes from Old English cāwel via Latin caulis.

May 16, 2015

Do You Know What 'H' Is For? Also, Heavy Metal Oven Mitt Hwants YOU to Have a Hwonderful Hweekend

Do you drop your aitches habitually? Or do you emphasize them in words like What, Who, Where and When?

So this week I decided to reread Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and the word heights got me to think about the letter H. Why is H important?* Why should you care? But before we delve into the whys and wherefores, a quote from the book.

'The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain.'

H is the unacknowledged legislator of the alphabet. It imparts authority, lends weight to vowels, makes 'anti-hero' sound great. Just imagine! Heathcliff without H would be named Eatcliff. What kind of teeth does it take to grind a cliff?

A girl with heterochromia iridum adopts a heterochromic dog. They meet a photographer and together
they create this wonderful image.

The word heterochromia owes a lot to the letter H.

Photo © Sergei Sarakhanov

Look at the letter H: It puts one in mind of two pillars connected by a bridge. H is the great connector. You try writing a novel without the letter H. What am I saying, a whole novel? Try a paragraph. Without it, you might as well forget about the hardest-working member of the English lexicon: the. And while the phonetic transcription might be [ðə], us common mortals that use the Roman alphabet would lose our way without H. We could do without a couple of vowels for a bit, but H? In your dreams.

This post was suggested to me by my good friend, Heavy Metal Oven Mitt.

Heavy Metal Oven Mitt
by John Magnet Bell


Heavy Metal Oven Mitt would now like you to enjoy a bunch of great things on the Hinternets.

[Further Reading]
Heducate Hyourself, part 1: The letter H on Hwikipedia

Learn of its Semitic origins, marvel at its hundred names in a dozen languages.

Heducate Hyourself, part 2: Folkscanomy, a collection of vintage science book covers

The much-beloved Internet Archive has gone through a redesign - it now looks bigger and bolder and fills your screen more confidently. Go and delight yourself with this Pinterest-like presentation of book cover design spanning the last few decades.

Heducate Hyourself, part 3: Heavy Metal Picks by Heavy Metal Oven Mitt

* Without H, we wouldn't have W.H. Auden, only a W. Auden. Admittedly less authorial and inspiring. Harold Pinter would be known as Arold Pinter. (Uuuuuugh.) And the word superhero would become unpronounceable.

Strawberry Lime Avalon
by John Magnet Bell

Inkscape / Photoshop

I designed a pair of leggings based on Strawberry Lime Avalon.
Click here to see my other legging designs

May 8, 2015

Three Book Mashups the World Is Dying to Read

If you learned you had six hours to live because the Earth was about to get hit by a giant space octopus riding a comet twice as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, what would you do with your six hours?

Let me tell you. You'd find the nearest spaceship, stock it to the rafters with ramen noodles and Two Buck Chuck (because you're thrifty) and make for the nearest planet. Mars.

Yet it takes a while to get to Mars. About six months, last time I checked. (I didn't check.) Here's something you could do to pass the time: Write novels that would entertain the native people of Mars. Now, you have to remember you may be the last living representative of the human race and all its cultural legacy, so you may find yourself obliged — noblesse oblige — to write books that summarize six thousand years of literary tradition.

One hopes you feel up to the task.

Don Davis

And — AND — because I do not begrudge you getting to the spaceship first, and kicking me off the ladder when I tried to climb into the cabin with you, condemning me and my hamster to certain death, I have a few suggestions for the sort of book you could write during your long, lonely, tedious, excruciatingly boring, sanity-crushing journey to Mars. Because I wish you well though I write this at the outset of my state of defunct-ness.

Suggestion #1.  
The Great Gatsby Fight Club*

OK, so The Great Gatsby told the story of a guy in the 1920s who lied to other people and Fight Club is about a totally different guy in the 1990s who lies to himself. It's all about lies and what others expect from us. About what is good and proper. Both lead characters have alter egos, I guess — for Gatsby it's his past self, for the guy in Fight Club it is Brad Pitt.

The Plot: In the 1920s, this Gatsby dude starts a secret club where spoiled rich kids beat the crap out of each other for his amusement. He pines for this Daisy girl like mad, doesn't realize he's been balling her since forever. When he treats Daisy like crap, she dumps him for an imaginary friend, so Gats goes ballistic and starts Project Mayhem in which the scions of California's richest families lay waste to suburban America thereby giving rise to the Great Depression, which was this morning when everybody woke up and all the Zoloft was gone.

Suggestion #2. 
The Star Wars Communist Manifesto**

Star Wars is this thing in space where lots of spaceships go kablooey. People fight with swords that require batteries to function properly, and have strange arguments about the use of force.

The Communist Manifesto was written by two beardy dudes and it proposes that all of us should be equal and have no bosses because we're the proletariat or the working class. And we're also supposed to be in this thing called a classy war which is when you wear a suit and tie and throw fancy wine at people, I guess, and the person with the cleanest outfit at the end wins the Internet.

The Plot: Red Vader wants to bring a common language to the galaxy, enforce uniform legal frameworks for everything from maritime law to private zoos and traveling circuses, organize taxation, provide utilities to the populace, provide for universal primary schooling and a galaxy-wide academic curriculum (none of that mystical, obscurantist Jedi crap) yet somehow, SOMEHOW, none of this is acceptable to the Rebellion.

But why? All that Vader asks in return for his generosity is a little cult of personality. Is that too much? What's wrong with sensible limitations on freedom of speech and a command economy, anyway?

So the great benefactor has to face opposition from his own children, who've been brainwashed by Obi Trump Kenobi, and protect the Red Star (a big fat honking warship on the Atlantic) against waves of attacks from robber baron fleets, broadcast signal intrusions and Rebel air raids.

Bonus points if you can come up with a dieselpunk setting for this.

Suggestion #3. 
The Lord of the Rings Had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The Lord of the Rings is mostly a travelogue but it includes some bonus content about an ancient spirit getting all pissy with the corporeal beings that run around his planet making funny noises and not looking in his general direction or acknowledging his authority. Also, the ancient spirit has huge daddy issues because his daddy made pretty corporeal beings and all of the ancient spirit's toys are ugly, so he gets real jelly and tries to break everybody's stuff. There's stuff about rings but only one of them matters, though it doesn't seem to do much.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is about Alexander, whose day doesn't go very well. He doesn't get a prize from his cereal box, his teacher refuses to admit that he drew an awesome invisible castle because she doesn't get modern art, and it sucks when they get you the wrong sneakers.

The Plot: Little Sauron Alexander*** goes to a school where all the kids make fun of him because he's a disembodied spirit who cannot exist outside his tiny armor. Undressing for the shower after gym is invariably the low point of any school day. If puffs of smoke could blush, little Sauron certainly would! He doesn't like being the only dark overlord in school; nobody respects his authority.

At mace practice he tries to hit his third best friend but bludgeons his best friend instead. The poor boy goes flying off the schoolyard! Fortunately, a passing eagle catches the boy midflight and brings him back. Only a broken jaw and a couple of ribs out of place — nothing too concerning. Everyone has a laugh at Sauron's expense. Oh, Sauron, you are so clumsy! Oh, Sauron, how will you conquer Middle Earth when you can't even master a simple mace? Then Sauron's best friend punches him in the shoulder and refuses to speak to him for the rest of the day.

After school a fancy magic ring at the ring shop catches Sauron Alexander's eye. He walks into the store and inquires about the price, nearly fainting when the sales associate says "one billion and forty-seven million dollars."
"That's insane!" Sauron cries. "My allowance is two dollars a week. It'll take me thousands of years to save up for that ring!"
"Well, you might just have to," says the sales associate.
Off goes little Sauron without the magic ring.

Coming home, he finds out that mother made ghost beans for dinner. Ghost beans suck! When Sauron grows up he will NOT accept any ghosts in his army. Especially not glowy green ones. The beans go BOO at Sauron, but he ignores their feeble groans and shoves them into the slit in his helmet. Where they go after that, nobody knows. Sauron asks to be excused and runs to the bathroom so he can brush his teeth and get rid of that bean taste... Except in the bathroom he remembers that he doesn't have any teeth. Damn. Damn it all to Mordor.

What an awful day. If only Sauron could move to New Zealand! His mother Galadriel explains that people have bad days everywhere, even in New Zealand. Maybe tomorrow will be even worse.

This is what New Zealand looks like now. Photo by Phillip Capper.

*This mashup probably contains a few factual errors. I only read a couple of pages of The Great Gatsby, got bored, watched part of a movie adaptation with Mira Sorvino, got bored of that, and I never read Fight Club either, although it does feature a great opening line. I did watch the movie twice. I do think Mira Sorvino played a character named Daisy in the Gatsby movie but I'm not sure.
**I have a rather foggy notion of what's in The Communist Manifesto. I do believe Marx wrote it in Hastings though, which is a nice seaside town in southern England. "Nice seaside town in southern England." Welp. "Nice" is just one of those words, isn't it? You don't really know what it means. At any rate, I'm sure Hastings was a nicer place in the 19th century than, say, Stalingrad during the famous siege.
***Wow, that sounds badass. If I ever get a turtle I'm going to call it Sauron Alexander.

Apr 24, 2015

6 Best Ways to Stop Being a Platypus

1. Don’t be a platypus.

2. Be some other animal, like a pink fairy armadillo.

3. Buy a one-way ticket to planet Platypus; over there, nobody thinks of themselves as platypuses. Only as people. You will by definition cease to be a platypus.

4. Try Species Conversion Surgery. Ex-platypuses make pretty good ducks.

5. Become wood. Easier said than done, I know, but once you become wood, you will no longer be a platypus.

6. Decide whether you are a duck or a beaver. Stick with your decision.

Math by Tensographics
on society6


They are venomous.
They wear tuxedos when you are not looking.
They travel at the speed of light when they sneeze. Usually in a circle. A very small circle. If ever you see a fast blurry circle in a pond, it may be a sneezing platypus.


The platypus went to the sun and said,
I want to swim, but you have dried up all the water.
The sun said, go and complain to the moon.

The platypus went to the moon and said,
I want to swim, but the sun has dried up all the water.
The moon said, go and complain to the sun.

The platypus went to his people and said,
The sun and the moon don't care about our plight.
So they rose up against the moon and the sun.

From the sun they squeezed
all the orange juice they could
and from the moon they wrung
all the gasoline they could.

They built a spaceship from the bones of the sun
and made furniture for it, from the bones of the moon.
They traveled twenty percent of an Eon
and came to this place we call Earth.

Apr 10, 2015

My Name is Mitt, Heavy Metal Oven Mitt. And I Am a Life Coach

Heavy Metal Oven Mitt
by John Magnet Bell
I want you to imagine sticking your hand, your beloved little hand, in an oven at nine billion Fahrenheit (250 Celsius or so) without protection of any kind, and pulling out a roasted bird carcass that you will deposit, say, on the kitchen table.

Wonderful. Now look at your hand and allow yourself to scream in horror for a couple of minutes at the soot-black chips that used to be your nails, and other unexpected marvels like the golden welts on the back of your hand. Which is the hand, which is the turkey?

Have you screamed to your heart’s content?

Awesome! Now, BEFORE you go and do something crazy like expose your uncooked flesh to searing temperatures, that’s where I come in.* My name is Mitt. Heavy Metal Oven Mitt. And I am a life coach.

Ever since I was poured into a mold and then united with my other half — which is to say, ever since the we became a me — I’ve felt this inclination to help people not get burned. In the kitchen, for sure. But also in life. So I’ve got a few pointers to share with you that only my experience as an oven mitt could provide. These will help you in your career, your love life and your spiritual path. Are you ready for enlightenment? Here we go.

Apr 6, 2015

How to Write a Damn Good Book Without Any Words, Especially those Filthy Adverbs

Do you want to write a book that will appeal to a mass audience (100+ people) and make you very rich? Follow the recommendations below. 

We can agree that adverbs are horrible. There should be a concentration camp for adverbs. Adverbs ruin writing. Adjectives ruin writing. The ingredients of writing ruin writing. We must cleanse our writing of adverbs and adjectives, and avoid using nouns or articles. We must be spare.

Readers do not want lots of language in your writing. They want to read your books and blog posts to amuse themselves. Adverbs, adjectives and nouns make it difficult for your readers to amuse themselves. Readers don’t want to look up words in dictionaries.

You should avoid adverbs of manner, place, time, inclusion, exclusion, and others. Because adverbs are horrible.

Another thing you should avoid: colors. There are seven real colors. The rest are imaginary and will confuse your readers. Print out a picture of a rainbow and label the colors on it. Include those colors in your writing. Exclude other colors.

Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Blue, and Blue.

Do not modify or qualify colors. Colors have no permissible attributes. Red is red. Everyone knows red. No need to compare a thing to another thing just to convey that it is red. It’s unnecessary to say “her lips were red like cherries.” What a waste of the reader's time!

Write “Her lips were red.”

But verbs can get in the way of a perfect sentence, too. So cut more words out of it: “Her lips – red.”

Keep cutting. “Lips – red.”


See? If you write few words, you can write big books. Just think of things to not say and write them down. Get rid of 95%. Write more words and shed another 95%. Repeat this process until you are ready to punch a black bear in the eye with your elbow. The goal is to reach 400,000 words with zero adverbs or fewer, few adjectives (more than 10 is bad) and many, many action verbs.

Writing a book is like baking corn bread. You do not need adverbs or adjectives or even nouns to bake corn bread. It follows that you do not need adverbs, adjectives or nouns to write a book. Adverbs, adjectives and nouns are evil. They were invented by intellectual slackers to ruin your fun and your meals. Imagine that you’re making corn bread and you don’t have any all-purpose flour. Now imagine that you lack the other ingredients: eggs, shortening, corn meal, cooking oil, sugar and salt. I don’t see a problem there. You can make corn bread. It won’t taste or look like corn bread, but it will be corn bread. I promise.

You need to write for people who don’t read. People who don’t read do not like adjectives, adverbs, similes, analogies, hyperbatons or zeugmas. They dislike language, so they go to the movies. They do not read, but they like to pretend that they read and so they buy books. You should write for these people, as there are a lot of them. It’s easy to do so. Make them feel that they are watching a movie, not reading a book. Movies are better than books. If you can jam a soundtrack into your book — and I don’t care what methods you use for that, if that’s what you’re going to do — then do so, because people who hate language respond to music. I’ve heard it said that music is a universal language, but if that were true, I could persuade my local slaughterhouse to sell me a pig carcass for a song. That hasn't happened, So music can’t be a language.

Now, a few words about action sequences.

Put many action sequences in your book and much romance. Mix the action and the romance. Forget all about description. People can imagine your setting, just get out of their way. Don’t describe things. You’ll have to use adverbs, adjectives and nouns. Keep a tight grip on your keyboard. REIN IT IN. You want to stir up emotions in your audience, not bore them to death with language.

So you should write movies, not books. Movies do not need adverbs, adjectives or nouns. They don’t need large quantities of language. Movies are superior.

There is none.

Apr 3, 2015

When should you use “phenomenon” or “phenomena”? PSA

Did you know there are words in English borrowed from completely ridiculous languages that nobody speaks anymore, like Classical Greek and Latin?

Yeah. There are.

Phenomenon, which comes down to us from Late Latin via Ancient Greek, means an observable fact; an observable aspect of some given thing (like a donkey in a hamster wheel*), or a wondrous person or thing, like a donkey in a hamster wheel**.


On account of their venerable descent, such words throw people for a loop when it comes time to use them well. The plural for phenomenon is phenomena, much like bacteria is the plural for bacterium, or datum means one data point, and the word “data” itself means a set of… of “datums.”***

So, for example, Brad Pitt is a phenomenon. Singular.

This goat is also a phenomenon. Singular.


Taken as a pair (or a group), Brad Pitt and the goat constitute a set of phenomena.

But if you splice them together, creating a single entity, you’re back to one phenomenon.


One goat or one Brad Pitt — each one is a phenomenon.
A bunch of goats is a set of phenomena.

There are several goats to be observed.

A group of Brad Pitts would be a phenomenon (an observable -- and astounding -- fact) but all these Brad Pitts together in one place would be phenomena, because we’re talking several instances of the phenomenon called Brad Pitt.

[Post-Scriptum: A List of Other Phenomena]

Grandfather clocks
April Ludgate
* I found the donkey’s picture above when I googled ‘donkey-powered helicopter’ the other day. Heed me now and be preserved from the kind of madness that would make you tattoo the words “gnothi seauton” on your forehead: You don’t want to know what other things I found.
** I know it's not a hamster wheel. It's a warp core. A medieval donkey-powered warp core.
*** Don’t you go off into the Internet spewing “datums” left and right, now. In general, do not spew. It’s bad form.

Apr 2, 2015

Start Your Novel Returns, Because Blogging is Just Too Damn Good

What do you call a journey of self-discovery when you end up turning around and you find yourself where you began?

I call it a resounding success.*

Three or four months ago, depending on how you count, I decided I wasn’t going to blog anymore. You know what? Blogging is wonderful. You meet interesting people in droves, and yes, there are droves of interesting people out there — nay, dare I say it? Veritable shish-kebobs of brimming parking lots of wonderful, marvelous people out there!

So I changed my mind. Blogging is great. I want to keep blogging, so Start Your Novel will go on. It won’t be your grandmother’s Start Your Novel, because she never read it, but it will be pretty much — a blog.

There will be a publishing schedule. I will keep it a secret so you don’t have to worry about when my next blog post is coming out. However I DO HEREBY PROMISE that you’ll have plenty of fun blog posts to read every week.

See, these Etruscan gentlemen are overjoyed.

Let’s get this donkey-powered helicopter on the road and no, that's not even a shadow of an April Fools’ joke because from my POV it’s already April 2.

Welcome to the future!**

* Or a trip to the fridge.
** I hope all of the above made sense somehow.

Pac Ninja, Pixelated Terror of the Night
by John Magnet Bell