Archibald is an utter conundrum...
Hello there :)
Welcome to issue twelve of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected and often delightful things I’ve recently encountered.
Grab yourself a suitable beverage and enjoy…
Part I: Good Things I’ve Encountered Online
Last weekend my Dad turned 80. In addition to buying him a gift, I really wanted to make him something for his birthday, and so I decided to write him a story. After many false starts, and an awful lot of truly terrible drafts I managed to complete the story in time for his birthday, and I’m pleased to report that he liked it.
Delighting in words and wordplay is a somewhat peculiar passion that both Dad and I share, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that many of the things I’ve noticed online over the past fortnight have been about words.
For example, thanks to Neil Gaiman I learned that in the US they pronounce “buoy” with two syllables rather than one (in the US it’s pronounced “boo-ey”, in the UK it’s pronounced “boy”); and how Sondheim handled the UK / US difference in his lyrics:
Joe Goulcher noted just how satisfying the double “l” in parallel is:
I’d never noticed that before, but it reminded me of the glorious day when I realised that ROTATOR was a palindrome.
Stuff like this pleases me more than it really should.
This caused me to disappear down an autological word rabbit hole for no good reason at all (because whilst both parallel and rotator are pleasing, neither are autological).
An autological word is a word that describes itself, or expresses a property that it also possesses; for example: pentasyllabic (quite aptly) has five syllables.
To determine whether or not a word is autological, Henry Segerman suggests asking “Is 'x' an ‘x’ word?".
E.G. “Is pentasyllabic a pentasyllabic word?”
If the answer is yes, (as is the case for pentasyllabic), then the word is autological.
Let’s look at another example:
E.G. “Is french a french word?”
Because ‘french’ is actually an english word, the word ‘french’ is heterological. As you might expect there are far more heterological words than autological ones.
Here are a few examples of words which I *think* are autological (it should be noted, that some might disagree with me on this - let me know if you think I’ve got any of these wrong):
Oxymoron is, in fact, an oxymoron…
An oxymoron is when two seemingly contradictory words are used together for effect. What you may not know is that the word itself is made up of two Greek words: oxys (which means sharp) and moros (which means stupid). A literal translation of these two Greek words is “pointedly foolish” – so the word itself is an illustration of the thing it describes.
Eggcorn is an eggcorn…
An eggcorn is a word or phrase that sounds like the real thing, and often seems logical or plausible, but is actually incorrect.
Like tellingphone for telephone, or underbrella for umbrella.
Eggcorn is an example of an eggcorn - apparently lots of people say eggcorn rather than acorn, although I feel like it’s only fair to note I’ve never heard anyone actually say that.
Mondegreen is a mondegreen…
A mondegreen is a misheard lyric, and the word itself was coined thanks to a misheard lyric:
In 1954, Sylvia Wright, an American writer, published a piece in Harper’s where she admitted to a childhood mishearing. When she was young, her mother would read to her from the “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” a 1765 book of popular poems and ballads. Her favourite verse began with the lines:
“Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.”
The thing is, there was no Lady Mondegreen, Wright misheard. The verse actually goes like this:
“Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And laid him on the green.”
My most pleasing discovery of the fortnight concerns the origins of the word conundrum. Conundrum is a word I like a lot - it’s very pleasing to say, huh?
But I’d never really considered it’s origins before, and so, for no good reason at all I decided to look it up.
Sounds like it might be Latin doesn’t it? It’s not!
Back in the 1590s, when we were absorbing a lot of Latin words into the English language lots of people were making fun of each other for their excessive love of latin words.
‘Conundrum’ is probably – not absolutely 100%, but probably: a joke word coined to make fun of the Latin craze.
Originally conundrum was an insult, and meant something close to pedant.
So if you said something like: “Archibald is an utter conundrum” you didn’t mean that Archibald was a confusing, difficult, or problematic puzzle of a man; instead you meant he was a person who was excessively concerned with minor details and rules, and with displaying academic learning.
Essentially conundrum was closer to calling someone an asshole, than a puzzle. From here on out, I fully plan on using it thusly :)
Moar serendipitous finds:
I loved this article about how we compare ourselves and our life choices to those of our friends by Tim Kreider:
“We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning…
…it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.”
I’ve just placed an order for his book, We Learn Nothing: Essays.
I thoroughly enjoyed this thread and would love to read all of the stories that were pitched:I want to edit a column where different writers write 900 words each week, at $2/word, about something they despise. Old snow. The term BIPOC. Death anniversaries. Wearing tights. (This is not a real column. Don't pitch me!)
Also, it occurs to me that there’s a bunch of really great starting points for content ideas in there for PR and link building people.
Following the last edition of this newsletter, my friend Jaz sent me a link to local artist Jem Panufnik’s site (thanks Jaz!). He takes original vintage and antique prints of Richmond and Twickenham, and then adds curious new elements. I think they are delightful:
Patricia Lockwood’s 2018 essay - How do we write now?
Originally given as a lecture at the Poetry Winter Workshop, in this essay Lockwood talks about how excessive exposure to the internet might impact our creativity:
“The first necessity is to claim the morning, which is mine. If I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day. If I don’t look out a window right away the day will be windowless, it will be like one of those dreams where you crawl into a series of smaller and smaller boxes, or like an escape room that contains everyone and that you’ll pay twelve hours of your life for.
If I open up Twitter and the first thing I see is the president’s* weird bunched ass above a sand dune as he swings a golf club I am doomed. The ass will take up residence in my mind. It will install a gold toilet there. It will turn on shark week as foreplay and then cheat on its wife.”
*This was written in 2018, Lockwood’s talking about Trump not Biden here.
Having read this essay I treated myself to a copy of her book, No One is Talking About This, which I’ve written a little more about in the books segment of this newsletter.
This fortnight I disappeared down a pterosaur rabbit hole, and discovered one of the largest creatures to ever take flight: Quetzalcoatlus northropi of the Cretaceous period, a pterosaur with a 33 foot wingspan that stood as tall as a giraffe.
They have a model skeleton displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum:
And here’s how Quetzalcoatlus might have looked:
The National Geographic article linked to above is a fascinating, albeit long read, so you might like to checkout this Wired article instead.
I also learned that to call a pterosaur a dinosaur is an error of the same order of magnitude as saying that humans are marsupials.
And finally, more GPT-3 fun
With COVID vaccinations underway, but high caseloads in many places, a new cautionary meme has emerged:
Here are a couple of GPT-3 generated examples, but you should definitely click the link and read them all:
“Being vaccinated does NOT mean you can travel through time and multiple realities. Fortunately you're still the same good-hearted grade schooler you were before you walked out of that basement with two items in your hand. One was the ability to restore the Dragon Balls, and the other was the recipe for the world’s best green bean casserole.”
“Being vaccinated does NOT mean you race to finish a 12-hour event sporting teeth shaped like Swarovski crystals that need to be thrown into an empty room to stop Project Big Shot from bursting forward.”
“Being vaccinated does NOT guarantee the mercy you seek all the time.”
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
First up, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. As I noted above, having been delighted by Lockwood’s 2018 essay, I treated myself to this book. It’s been suggested that this novel is perhaps a more in-depth exploration of the themes explored in her essay, which, on balance, I think is fair. Our protagonist here is a nameless writer who is famous mostly for her tweets, and, as such is invited to cities all over the world to speak about “the new communication, the new slipstream of information”.
It includes endlessly quotable, wry observations on the nature of the lives we live online:
“A person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth.”
“Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.”
“We took the things we found in the portal as much for granted as if they had grown there, gathered them as God’s own flowers. When we learned that they had been planted there on purpose by people who understood them to be poisonous, well.
W E L L !!!”
The novel is divided into two parts, the first half is a study of our protaganist’s somewhat static existence; and in the second, the protagonist’s sister becomes pregnant, and the child is born with very severe birth defects. In the second part of the book, there are moments of real poignancy, as she describes her niece’s life, and the heartbreak of her condition.
As well-written as this book is, (and it really is very well-written), I’m not sure the extent to which it actually works as a novel, but it’s nevertheless a very satisfying and quotable read.
Recommendation of the fortnight goes to In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. This dreamscape-like memoir, is a raw telling of Machado’s experience with domestic abuse, and her battle to come to terms with it.
“Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”
When Machado was in her late 20s, she met a woman who was that “mix of butch and femme that drives you crazy”. Prior to this, she’d never been in a relationship with a woman before. Initially everything was great, but soon problems arose - the woman became paranoid when Machado didn’t answer her phone. She accused Machado of cheating on her with everyone from friends to her dad. Fights erupted out of nowhere. Soon, Machado was doubting her own perception of reality.
Her story is told through a range of narrative lenses. Within the book you’ll find chapters like Dream House as Romance Novel, as Stoner Comedy, as Self-Help Bestseller. In a particularly powerful chapter: Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure, as a reader you’re asked to make a series of decisions which seemingly drive the narrative, but of course in reality only give the illusion of control - you have no real agency here.
Because so much queer history has been buried, lost, or just not talked about Machado notes that finding historic written texts on the topic of domestic abuse people felt like “pinning down fragments of history with a well-aimed throws of a knife”.
Nevertheless, she was driven to seek them out in an attempt to build the kind of archive of same-sex abuse that would have made her feel less alone.
Additionally, Machado is painfully aware of the court of “queer history”, which has used the rhetoric of gender roles as a way to somehow “absolve queer women from responsibility for domestic abuse”. There have also been those who argued that this could and should be handled only within the community.
Ultimately, Machado believes that the LGBTQ community needs to have an honest conversation about domestic abuse and to admit: “we’re in the muck like everyone else”. She writes:
“…queer folks need that good PR; to fight for rights we don’t have, to retain the ones we do.
But haven’t we been trying to say, this whole time, that we’re just like you?”
This fortnight, I’ve also re-read several wonderful short story collections. If a novel feels like too much for you right now, I’d highly recommend getting your mitts on a copy of one (or more) of the following excellent collections: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and Get In Trouble by Kelly Link.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
I watched Seaspiracy (Netflix), a documentary that investigates the environmental impact of fishing. It’s prompted lots of debate - many viewers have said they will no longer eat fish after watching the film, whilst others feel that it oversimplifies a complex issue, and makes inaccurate claims: perhaps most notably, this one:
"If current fishing trends continue, we will see virtually empty oceans by the year 2048."
~Ali Tabrizi, the film's director and narrator.
This claim originates from a 2006 study, however, apparently, the study's lead author is doubtful about using its findings today.
However, perhaps what’s most problematic about the documentary is its conclusion - essentially that we should all be vegan. Whilst to opt for veganism is a very respectable position for those of us who have the means to do so, the choice to be vegan simply isn’t an option for the vast majority of people in the world.
Marine biologist Daniel Pauley, writing for Vox notes:
“…it twists the narrative about ocean destruction to support the idea that we — the Netflix subscribers of the world — can save ocean biodiversity by turning vegan. In doing so, Seaspiracy undermines its tremendous potential value: to persuade people to work together, and push for change in policy and rules that will rein in an industry which often breaks the law with impunity…
…The message I wish the filmmakers had conveyed instead is that pushing for legislative changes and improved enforcement of existing laws is the best way to get involved. Just like the fight against tobacco in enclosed public places was won by smoking bans, and not by appeals to smokers, the fight against illegal fishing and the other shenanigans of the fishing industry will be won by political actions directed at governments, not appeals to vegans in New York, London, or Vancouver.”
This documentary is sensational, and it’s deliberately so. Do the ends justify the means? If the documentary acts as a catalyst for further investigation, debate, and ultimately action, then perhaps the answer is yes. I fear however, in some respects the documentary may be in danger of reinforcing the status quo; because the choice to include claims that are so easy to debunk, might mean that the more legitimate claims which have been made are similarly ignored.
I’d strongly encourage you to watch it if you haven’t already done so, plus you might also want to check out the BBC’s fact check, and marine biologist Daniel Pauley’s excellent Vox article for a more balanced view.
On a much lighter note, I also binged Money Heist (Netflix) over the past fortnight. It’s a twisty-turny, trashy thriller about a rag tag gang of criminals who embark of a very ambitious heist of the Spanish Royal Mint. The plot takes some frankly utterly unbelievable turns so you’ll need to switch your logical brain off and just go with it, but it’s a lot of fun.
I’m sure the vast majority of you will have watched this already, but if you haven’t I’d recommend it, although I feel like it’s only right to highlight that it’s a show that is at times problematic, and includes both violent and sexual scenes, and, as such, won’t be for everyone.
Part IV: Things I’m Doing
As mentioned previously, this section is here to keep me honest. I’m hoping that by documenting some of the things I’m planning to do, it’ll give me the extra motivation required to actually do them.
Writing Dad’s birthday story has taken up most of my free time over the last fortnight. (In fairness, procrastinating, disappearing down linguistic rabbit holes, and generally failing to write is what’s actually taken up most of my time.)
So erm yeah. I did that. I also spent way more time than I’d really like doing HMRC stuff - the joys of self-employment, huh?
In other news I also just realised that a bunch of you thoroughly excellent humans responded to my request from issue 10 of this newsletter and sent me a handful of adjectives that you think describe me. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR DOING THAT!
I really appreciate it, and would have responded sooner only Googlemail in its infinite wisdom elected to send all your responses directly to my spam folder. Cheers Google, you effing conundrum.
So what’s next?
Expect X Files recommendations soon. Definitely in time for the next newsletter, and hopefully sooner than that. I’ll also be working on a new talk which I’m pretty excited about, I’ll share more details with you next time.
That’s all from me for now.
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