31 December 2005

Something to Think About -- No.1

You know, based on some of the things I see, there are times I wonder just which is the smartest creature on the planet.

Take, for example, the dog Ginny who just died in August. If you believe only half of what you hear, Ginny was quite an intelligent animal. Not only did she rescue other animals in distress, those animals were cats. In fact, she is credited with rescuing nearly 900 (!) cats during her 17-year life.

Such an extraordinary animal was she that, in 1998, the
Westchester Cat Show (NY) named her Cat of the Year.

You can find out more at the official
Ginny Fan Club site which contains many stories of the work done by this wonderful animal. (You might wish to have a box of tissue handy.)

There is also information about the Ginny Fund, which collects money to continue her work helping animals in need.

Photo of Ginny and two of her rescues used with kind permission of the site webmaster. Copyright
Philip Gonzalez, caretaker of Ginny.

Disclaimer: I have no relationship at all with the Ginny Fan Club or the Ginny Fund.

30 December 2005

Rule Number One

Matt said: I'd like to know about the British slang word for gay men -- "poofs" or "poofters". Where did it originate?

Thank you for the question, Matt. This seems to be one of those words everyone has heard, but whose origins cannot be explained.

Sources seem to agree that the root word (poof) first appeared in England in 1850. It was not until early in the 20th century that the derivation (poofter) appeared in England, thought to have come by way of Australia.

Poof could be a variant of the slang word puff, which is thought to have come from the phrase Light as a cream puff -- although I could not discover why that refers to homosexuals. It could be that poofs are considered effeminate -- men who cannot carry their weight (i.e. not masculine), and therefore, light.

References indicate it is a very negative word -- worse, in fact, even than queer and fag.

It is all the more odd, then, that my introduction to that word would have been via the British television program "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in the early 1970s where it was used quite openly in the skit "Bruces."

This concerned the introduction of a new member of the faculty of the philosophy department at the University of Wooloomooloo -- during which the new member was reminded of the rules. "Rule Number One: No poofters." (To emphasize the point, rules three, five, and seven were also "No poofters.")

29 December 2005

Would You Like Chips With That?

Lena asked me to help settle a bet: In "Godfather 1", an actor ... talks about getting a big old dead fish wrapped in paper as a "Sicilian message: Lou Cabrottzi sleeps with the fishes." At least that is what MY ears tell me. My best friend ... swears she hears "...Luka Brattzi sleeps..." So: is it Luka ... Lou ... Cabrottzi, Brattzi? This is worth a rather substantial T.G.I.F. Holiday Gift Certificate.

Thank you for the question, Lena. Don Corleone's bodyguard in "The Godfather" (1972) meets a rather unpleasant death at a restaurant (not TGIF, I believe) and is sent to sleep amongst the fishies.

Played by the actor Lenny Montana, the character's name is Luca Brasi.

27 December 2005

Just Ask Christopher #2

Do you have a question for me? Go to the "Comment" section at the bottom of this entry and leave your question. Questions can be of any kind: factual, advice, opinions, etc. EACH question asked will be addressed -- even if I cannot answer it. I would love to know where you are writing from (city -- and country if not America).

Friend or Faux?

Mass Bradley asked: Besides cultivating a "trained eye," are there any simple but effective tests to determine if an object is composed of Bakelite...

Thank you for the question, Bradley. Invented in 1907, Bakelite (pronounced BAY-ka-lite) was used for practical, industrial purposes. Only later did it appear in its most prevalent state: jewelry.

Bakelite is actually pretty hard to distinguish from certain similar plastics -- even with a trained eye. There are three main "in the field" ways to identify Bakelite:

1: Appearance: Bakelite has a certain reflective quality that is slightly different than similar plastics. The colors are more muted in comparison.

2: Weight: Bakelite will be the heavier of the two when comparing similar sized items made of this and another plastic.

3: Smell: When a small section is rubbed vigorously, it gives off a specific smell like formaldehyde. (Others say it is like camphor or carbolic acid.)

When at home, you may dab a small amount of a household cleaner on the item with a cotton swab. These cleaners (e.g. Formula 409, Scrubbing Bubbles Bathroom Cleaner) do something to the Bakelite or the patina and make the swab turn yellow. I have not tried the swab method; so I cannot confirm whether it works.

Although Bakelite is the glamour plastic (for the moment), don't allow its allure to blind you to the other great advances made in plastics in the early half of the 20th century. Fine jewelry, decorative items, and many practical items were made from Catalin, Urea, Melamine, etc. Many of these items changed the course of history in both practical and aesthetic ways.

24 December 2005


James in Silver Spring, MD said: Years ago I met a guy who said that science had no answer for the question "How does the brain move the body?" Was he right?

Thank you for the question James. I have been interested in science my whole life -- especially more so as an adult. In all these years I have never heard this. Perhaps at the time that comment was correct. In the past couple decades, a lot of advances have been made in brain science.

Everything the brain does involves an electrical impulse or a chemical reaction. A very simplified explanation for movement starts with an electrical impulse in the brain which travels the spinal cord and routes to the correct nerve(s) in the arm or leg. The jolt of electricity makes the muscles expand or contract as needed to initiate movement. Various chemical reactions aid this process. These movements can be voluntary (picking up a book) or involuntary (breathing). Perhaps the comment concerned the exact mechanisms behind all this -- which are quite complicated, but pretty much understood now.

This underscores why brain injury can be so catastrophic -- which is why we have (and, hopefully, use) seat belts (prevent the brain from hitting the windshield), helmets (to cushion the brain from blows), and neck braces to be used after accidents (to prevent damage to the spinal cord).

23 December 2005

An Apple A Day Does... What?

Okay. Here is my pathetic attempt to be creative (see picture -- if you dare). I tried to make one of those apple pomanders like I did in grade school. You can see the result. Nearly an entire bottle of whole cloves, and I did not have enough for one apple. So, here we are.

Does anyone know the origin of these clove apples? I mean, aside from being busy work for poor, condemned children in elementary school?

I found one reference that said it was part of the pomander craze of the 17th and 18th centuries (back when they did not bathe enough and needed something to hide the smell). Another reference said it began as a kissing apple that a fair young maiden (whom else?) would offer to some cute young guy she happened across. If he found her comely and appealing, he would bite off a clove and they would kiss. So, it was kind of an ice breaker / breath freshener kind of thing.

Have you heard any other origin of this goofy thing?

22 December 2005

Spork it Over

Daphne asked: Who invented that odd spoon-fork abomination called the "Spork"?

Thank you for the question, Daphne. Blame for this one can be spread all over the place. I had a vague recollection the spork had been invented during WW2. Apparently, lots of people think this, as there are many entries on the internet saying the same thing. However, the first known patent for a combination utensil dates all the way back to 1874. (That's no typo.)

Registered to Samuel W. Francis, the "Improvement in Combined Knives, Forks, and Spoons" (pictured) combines all the best of the three utensils into one uberutensil that he did not name -- which is probably for the best, when you consider the possibilities.

Other patents for various utensil combinations came along in 1908, 1912, 1978, and 1998; but none of these look like the spork we have come to love (or revile).

21 December 2005

How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?

James in Silver Spring, MD asked: Speaking of hands: Why does the Hamburger Helper "Helping Hand" logo only have three fingers and a thumb?

Thank you for the question, James. Most likely because, in animation, it is easier to animate three fingers over four. Matt Groening ("The Simpsons") has often said the reason his regular characters have three fingers and one thumb is because it was easier for him to draw. (One semi-regular has four fingers and thumb. Do you know which one that is?) This would probably explain why the ants in "A Bug's Life" have only four legs rather than the correct six.

This question makes one think about the evolution of the human hand. Many scientists state the greatest advance in human evolution was the opposable thumb (to aid in grasping, which leads to ease in tool making), but it is really irrelevant how many fingers oppose that thumb. Today, most humans have four fingers; however, there are the occasional births of humans with five or six fingers -- which is known as "polydactyly." Some scientists believe these are examples of genes that had once been more prominent, and now lie dormant in most cases. This implies that is it possible we have ancestors who had more than four fingers.

You might remember that episode of the original "The Outer Limits" in which a character experimented with accelerating a human subject to see how humans would evolve. At the end of his experiment the subject had five fingers and a thumb.

Two interesting articles will be found here and here.

20 December 2005

More Bang for the Buck

James of Silver Spring, MD asked: The universe is everything. And the universe is expanding. What is the universe expanding into if the universe is everything?

Thank you for the question, James. This is indeed proof that I don't know everything. I am still stuck on the question "what was there before the universe that allowed something to go 'bang!' in the first place?".

Personally, I like the universe-in-a-grain-of-sand theory of everything. It is infinite both ways with no beginning or ending.

When "Fun" is No Fun

Daphne asked: Why do they call those teensy-weensy candy-bars you get at Halloween "Fun Size"? That isn't a fun size. It's a downsize. A 2-pound bar--THAT would be "fun-size"! Why do they do that?

Thank you for the question Daphne: Unfortunately, this is the power of advertising at work. How else to take a smaller version of something, repackage it, and sell it unless you call it something else -- like "Fun!" or "New!" Kids like to have fun, so I suppose the manufacturers think kids would see this and ask for it. The parents would have to buy it because what parent would dare deny their child some fun?

And I totally agree with you: a two-pound version of a favorite candy bar would, indeed, be a fun size!

This Dolly is no Sheep

Mass Bradley asked In "Hello Dolly", when everyone sings, "It's so nice to have you back where you belong..." WHERE DID DOLLY GO and WHY?

Thank you for the question, Bradley. I also do not remember any mention in the actual story of her being gone or why.

At first, I thought this might be some metaphorical reference to returning from being gone -- such as when a good customer arrives at a restaurant, and the owner says "Welcome back." However, it is clear from the lyrics that she indeed has been gone for some time. She mentions a song being played from "way back when" and then asks the band (or the someone in the restaurant) to "bridge that gap."

Later, she says that she "went away from the lights of Fourteenth Street / And into [her] personal haze." So, perhaps it was some kind of emotional detachment that has now been corrected.

Aside from those possibilities, I am afraid this question will have to go unanswered for the time being.

Give the Man a Hand

This is a prosthetic hand which seems to date to around WW1, and is one of the most beautiful pieces of craftsmanship I have ever seen. As a lover of great design and human ingenuity, I have to sit in awe of the work that went into this. The hand is currently on auction. (The photograph is used with kind permission of the owner.)

This item touches on so many things: the horrible damage that comes from war, the brilliant genius of the human mind to solve problems, the workmanship, the practicality, the attention to details -- and crosses so many timelines including the Industrial Revolution and the end of the Victorian era in England.

The maker is a company called Prothesia Ltd, from London. I have not been able to find any information about this company or this hand. I hope one of my readers can shed some light on this.

Here We Go A Wassailing

Joyolivia asked: What exactly is in wassail? ... I meant I need to know because I always say I don't like it when someone offers it but if I knew the ingredients, they might believe me more if I could say I dislike X or Y.

Thank you for the question, Joyolivia. Here are a few thoughts. Firstly, whenever you are a guest somewhere and you are offered Wassail (or anything), a simple "No, thank you" is always an appropriate reply. A good host will always accept that as an answer without regard as to your reasons for declining.

More to the point, however, Wassail is basically a punch made from various fruit juices (orange, lemon, etc.) with some flavoring (cloves, cinnamon, etc.). I had thought it might also contain wine, but I found no corroborating sources in my research. It sounds like it might be delicious.

19 December 2005

Penguins and Flight

Matt in Phoenix also asked why penguins cannot fly. This is an interesting question because penguins evolved from birds that did once fly. However, through time, penguin ancestors found it more useful to swim from predators than fly away from them, and flight became a vestigial trait. This is true with many now-flightless birds, including the ostrich, emu and kiwi (pictured).

Soup Skins

Matt in Phoenix asked why "skin" forms on the top of soup and cocoa. I am not sure why that forms, although my guess it has something to do with the warmer liquid hitting the cooler air and congealing. Maybe someone reading this weblog could shed some light on it.

Just Ask Christopher #1

Do you have a question for me? Go to the "Comment" section at the bottom of this post and leave your question. Questions can be of any kind: factual, advice, opinions, etc. EACH question asked will be addressed -- even if I cannot answer it. I would love to know where you are writing from (city -- and country if not America).

18 December 2005

Myobu or Yourobu?

Myobu is the first recorded name of a cat in Japan about 1,000 years ago. This cat belonged to Emperor Ichijo. I have a cat. His name is Eames. He is a red-spotted tabby. We (my significant other and I) love cats. We love all animals. Andy Warhol did now-famous paintings of cats. What is it about cats that makes them so popular?

What's All This, Then?

See, for a long time, I thought I knew everything. Okay, so I didn't.

Then, I found out I knew a lot more than a lot of people -- but not everything. I've been a journalist for nearly 30 years -- I'm not as old as that might make me sound, because I started out in high school. I am not fully employed as a journalist now because writing for print is getting harder and harder seeing how so many newspapers are closing. It's really sad. I've also been a documentary producer for radio, and I have dabbled in television documentaries. I love documentaries.

Anyway, so here we are. I recently decided to hop on the bandwagon, as it were, and start a blog. A blog? How original. How many blogs are there, like, 8,000,000? Why one more? I don't know.

But I do know this: I have a lot of knowledge to share, and I would like to learn more things about the world. So how about this: We'll share. You can ask me questions, and I will try to answer them (seriously, I take knowledge very seriously); and I'll ask questions and hope someone out there will have an answer. Does that sound fair?