Sep 08

Rats having fun

Most people are bewildered when I tell them that my family has pet rats. Having been indoctrinated with the conventional image of rats as nasty, disease-carrying vermin, they can’t imagine why anyone would want to have such creatures as pets. Of course they don’t realize that domesticated fancy rats are as different from feral rats as dogs are from wolves. I sometimes try to explain how gentle, affectionate, and fun our rats are, but it’s difficult to communicate in words.
From now on, I’m just going to point people to this video. It does an excellent job of conveying how entertaining pet rats can be. I hope the young lady who made the video is planning to pursue a career in television or film production, because she’s quite good at it. Other people have made video recordings of their rats and posted them on YouTube, but those are usually unedited footage and rather boring. This one is not only well edited, but also makes clever use of camera angles and music. Nice work, Linda!

Jun 12

The plural of dwarf

In her new blog, Ruth asks, “Is it really spelled dwarfs? That just doesn’t sound/look right to me.” This seems like a simple question, and I thought I knew the answer. But when I searched the Web for confirmation, I found that this simple question opens a 55-gallon drum of worms.
The short answer is that “dwarfs” was the plural form of “dwarf”, until J.R.R. Tolkien came along. He didn’t like it, and in The Hobbit, he used “dwarves” instead. The Hobbit and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, were so popular and influential that Tolkien’s preferred plural was imprinted in the minds of his readers, and was almost universally adopted by the fantasy fiction authors who came after him. (One notable exception is C.S. Lewis, who used “dwarfs” in his Chronicles of Narnia.) As a result, “dwarfs” looks odd and even wrong to many people today.
Of course that’s an oversimplification. As Mark Liberman points out in his Language Log essay, both plural forms existed in the early 19th century. Also, the word “dwarf” occurs outside of fairy tales and fantasy; in astronomy, it’s used to describe certains types of stars, such as a white dwarf. And, of course, it’s used in medicine to describe a disorder in which the patient does not grow to full adult stature. In these scientific contexts, the dominant plural form is still “dwarfs”.
But there’s another context in which we have all encountered the word “dwarfs”, and it’s the one that Ruth alluded to in her blog. It’s the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney’s first full-length animated feature. By one of those amazing coincidences that frequently crop up in popular culture, Snow White and The Hobbit were both unveiled in the same year: 1937. The dates are so close together (September 21 for The Hobbit, December 21 for Snow White) that it’s clear that neither work was influenced by the other. Snow White was in production for three years, and Tolkien began developing the story that became The Hobbit sometime in the late 1920s.
Disney’s dwarfs do look a lot like Tolkien’s dwarves, and both groups enjoy mining the earth for gems and precious metals. But the similarities pretty much end there. Tolkien’s dwarves, especially as described in the Lord of the Rings books, are grim, ale-guzzling, axe-wielding warriors. Disney’s dwarfs are happy and carefree, whistling while they work. Is one of these depictions more authentic than the other? What does the word “dwarf” even mean in the context of fantasy and folklore? I’ll tackle that question in another post.

May 07

The Horseshoe

Bob’s tale of escaping from The Towers to a much better room in the Horseshoe reminds me of my own experience a few years earlier. Ironically, I tried to get into the Towers, and later strove to get out of the Horseshoe.

When I was accepted at USC in the summer of 1978, I listed The Towers as my first-choice dorm on my housing application. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I was an idiot. I hadn’t actually visited The Towers and had no idea of how squalid they were. I picked them solely on the basis of their central location. Fortunately for me, there were no open slots in The Towers. In fact, there were no open slots in any dorm, and for a while it looked as if I wouldn’t be able to go to USC.

But a couple of weeks before classes were scheduled to start, I received a letter telling me that a housing slot had become available, and of course I took it without quibbling about which dorm it was in. Purely by chance, I ended up in the Horseshoe.

Specifically, I was in a room on the second floor of Legare, the building next door to Pinckney (where Bob would end up living a few years later). But Bob’s Horseshoe wasn’t the same as mine. In 1978, the dorms on the Shoe were better than the Towers, but they were shabby and in need of renovation.

My suite in Legare housed three people, including me. It consisted of one bedroom for two people (which I shared with George), another bedroom for one (occupied by Bubba), and a common room. The common room had three built-in desk/bookshelf units with chairs, a washbasin, and some empty floor space that Bubba filled with a sofa and a stereo set. No other furniture was provided. There was no kitchen, no bathroom (we had to go downstairs for that), and no air conditioning. Heat was provided by a radiator located against the front wall of the common room, as far from the bedrooms as possible.

Despite these flaws, my Horseshoe suite might have been an OK place to live. Bubba was an excellent roomate, very friendly and easygoing. But George was the opposite: unpleasant, disagreeable, and drunk most of the time. I was stuck sharing a room with him. (Why couldn’t the housing gods have put Bubba in the same room with me, and George in a room by himself?)

I gritted my teeth and put up with the situation for my first year at USC, but when it came time to apply for housing assignments for the following year, I was determined to move. I checked out the other dorms to see what the possibilities were. By this point, I knew to avoid The Towers. The men’s dorm called Preston was also not an option. If anything, it was worse than The Towers. There was actually a T-shirt that said “In Preston, no one can hear you scream . . .”

Bates West was one of the newest dorms on campus. It was located on the periphery of the campus, but I no longer cared about central location. The rooms were actually suites for four people: two double-occupancy bedrooms with desks, a full bathroom, a furnished common room, and a small but fully-functional kitchen. The building was a 14-story high-rise with elevators, central heat and air conditioning, a trash chute, and a laundromat in the basement. What more could you ask for?

I didn’t have to camp out like Bob did, but I requested and received a reassignment to Bates West. I lived there for the next three years, leaving only when, in my senior year, I obtained rent-free living quarters near the center of campus. (But that’s another story.)

The year after I left the Horseshoe, the university closed Legare and Pinckney, gutted them, and rebuilt the interiors. The renovated Horseshoe dorms were similar to Bates West internally, except that each four-person suite had four private bedrooms. Each suite had a balcony, too. So I can certainly understand why Bob was as eager to get into the Horseshoe as I had been to get out. His timing was much better than mine.

Mar 21


The folks at Weta Workshop have an online store called Weta Collectibles. (Yes, this is the Weta Workshop responsible for jaw-dropping effects in films like the Lord of the Rings series and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.) In addition to the movie-related merchandise, the store also offers rayguns. And when I say rayguns, I mean Dr. Grordbort’s Infallible Aether Oscillators, “a line of immensely dangerous yet simple to operate wave oscillation weapons”. These limited-edition handcrafted guns appear to be 19th-century technology, using phlogiston and compressed aether for ammunition. Three models are available:

  • ManMelter 3600ZX Sub-Atomic Disintegrator Pistol
  • F.M.O.M. Industries Wave Disrupter Gun
  • Goliathon 83 Infinity Beam Projector

These are exactly the kind of weapons you need when you’re battling nameless horrors at the center of the Earth, setting out to explore the distant future in your time machine, or just going for a stroll through the East End of London on a foggy night.
Source: J. Michael Straczynski

Mar 01


I’ve been known to lend a book to someone and then forget who I lent it to. And it’s conceivable that the borrower might forget who the owner is. This is one reason that bookplates are a good idea. You can buy them in stores and write your name on them, but personalized, preprinted bookplates are even better. If that’s what you want, go to Bookplate Ink, where you can choose from dozens of black-and-white or color designs. The bookplates are self-adhesive with a peel-off backing and are acid-free.

Feb 24


My children are all grown up now, but I still remember what it’s like to have a baby as a part of your everyday life. And mainly what it means is that there’s a lot of stuff to carry around. Back when I was changing diapers, that meant carrying a diaper bag everywhere. But today’s new parents have other options. A company called DadGear offers some interesting alternatives to the traditional rectangular shoulder bag. You can buy diaper bags shaped like sport bags, backpacks, or messenger bags (including Collegiate Series bags with university logos). My favorite DadGear item is the Diaper Vest, a fleece vest with pockets designed for diapers, wipes, bottles, and even a built-in changing pad. There’s also a Cargo Jacket with the same features. Why wasn’t this stuff available two decades ago when I could have used it?

May 29

In memoriam

It’s Memorial Day, the day set aside in the United States to honor members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty. In observance of the day, I recommend that you read Gerard Van der Leun’s excellent essay “The Name in the Stone“.
If you wish, you can also read “Remember”, an article I wrote two years ago. (The occasion was actually Veterans Day, but it has considerable relevance to Memorial Day as well.)

Sep 03

Pop quiz

Could you pass 8th-grade math? Find out by answering these ten questions from the Illinois State Board of Education’s standardized test for 8th-graders. I got all ten of them right, and I was a liberal arts major, so the rest of you have no excuse for not acing the quiz. (I did use a calculator, though. I’m pretty sure that’s allowed.)

Nov 11


Yesterday, my friend Keith asked me whether I had to work today. “Um, yes,” I said. “Why would I have the day off?”
“It’s Veterans Day,” he replied. “Oh,” I mumbled, looking at my feet. “I, uh, forgot.”
How embarrassing. Admitting that I had forgotten Veterans Day would be a faux pas no matter when I did it or who I was talking to. But it’s particularly shameful in this instance, because I did it in wartime, during some of the fiercest fighting we’ve yet seen. And because I was talking to Keith, who served in the Air Force for nine years. He didn’t even react to my blunder. I’m sure he’s grown accustomed to such thoughtlessness on the part of lifelong civilians like me.
Actually, I was vaguely aware that Veterans Day was approaching, but I hadn’t really given it much thought. I don’t get the day off, so I wasn’t concerned with the exact date — it was just another workday to me. I assumed that it was probably on a Monday, like Memorial Day and Labor Day. But that’s wrong.
I realized that I didn’t even really understand the distinction between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Aren’t they basically the same? I looked them up in Wikipedia, and learned that I was wrong about that too. Veterans Day is a time for honoring living Americans who served in the military. Memorial Day commemorates those who died in military service. How is it that I never knew this? Well, it’s obvious: I never made the effort to find out until now.
As I read these Wikipedia articles, I was struck by something else about these two days: how little they ask of us. Unlike most of our other holidays, Veterans Day and Memorial Day don’t require us to spend our time and money on elaborate observances. We’re not expected to put up decorations (except the flag, of course), or host parties, or give gifts to the veterans we know, or send Veterans Day cards. We don’t have to stock up on candy, or wear costumes, or set off fireworks.
These holidays only ask us to do one thing: remember. Remember our fellow citizens who have put on uniforms and taken up arms to keep us safe. Remember their sacrifices. Remember those who have put their civilian lives on hold for months or years, or even devoted their entire careers to military service. And, of course, remember those who were wounded or killed in the line of duty.
It doesn’t take much time — less than trick-or-treating, or addressing and mailing Christmas cards. And it doesn’t cost any money at all. All that is required of us is that we stop thinking about ourselves for a moment or two and acknowledge what veterans did for us. Not very difficult, is it?
Fortunately, not everyone is as remiss as I am at recognizing our vets. Mackubin Thomas Owens does the job properly in his essay: Where Do We Find Such Men? And Zell Miller, in his keynote speech at this year’s Republican National Convention, said it even more succinctly:

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom he abuses to burn that flag.

I can add nothing to these tributes except to say to Keith — and my father, who served in the Army — and every other American military vet: thank you. You haven’t been forgotten.