Monday, January 29, 2018


     We wordsmiths have lots of tools in our English kit, 470,000 of them in fact, according to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, enough so we’ll never run out of material for crosswords, spelling bees, and Scrabble games.  They’re fascinating in their scope and beauty and power.

     I don’t envy any foreign adult trying to learn English, though, simply because there are so many words and attendant potential confusions.  For example, there are at least 368 words that can serve as both a noun and a verb (and occasionally even an adjective as well), like cough, trip, kiss, whisper, glue, arrest, duck, service, taunt, hope, dart.

     Appropriately, some words look and/or sound like their meanings.  The word servile itself seems to cringe, even if you didn’t know what it means.  Curmudgeon perfectly expresses its meaning (and yes, I count several of them among my friends).  Zip looks fast just standing still, as does its more sophisticated cousin zipperFoible is inherently unserious, capricious, and eccentric just by the look and sound of it.

     Then there are those words I’ve always thought have meanings that don’t suit them at all.  Napkin, for example, should have been reserved for babies born to a race of mythical diminutive creatures known as Naps, who perhaps inhabit the leafy glades of Napa Valley.  Tantamount would be a perfect name for a volcano on a fictional planet called Tanta in the dozenth sequel of Star Wars.  The word promulgate is much too heavy and visceral for its meaning.  I see it better as meaning ‘digestion in the age of the dinosaurs’ as in: “After a delicious lunch of triceratops tail with a side of palm trees, the tyrannosaurus rex spent the afternoon just basking in the sun and promulgating.”  A chihuahua should never have been an annoying yappy little ankle-biter of a dog, but a sexy Latin dance instead, which one performs like the cha-cha but with a lot of hot salsa added.

     While I’m ranting, I’d also like to start a long-needed revolution in the naming of sports teams.  I understand that we’re the most successful predators ever to live on this tired planet, but must we carry that tradition over into our games by co-opting all those scary names of the lesser predators?   I say we change them all to more innocent, comfortable monikers:  The Chicago Gerbils, The Memphis Rabbits, The Houston Turtles, The New England Chipmunks, The Miami Manatees, The Philadelphia Chickadees, The LA Loons.

     Anyway, I’ve calculated that I only have to copy a quarter of the nearly half-million words in Webster’s Unabridged to create a number-one NY Times best-selling novel.

     I just need to figure out which words and in what order.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Where is the Internet?

     It’s probably the most important and complex infrastructure ever devised in all human history, yet who can point to it?  Almost everyone on Earth has access to it for quickly retrieving any conceivable kind of interesting and helpful information and for globally communicating, yet few seem to know exactly what it is.  Like the air we breathe, it’s invisible, yet it’s everywhere.

     In large part it can indeed be imagined as a net thrown over the planet.  It is interconnected by thousands of miles of 329 undersea cables and buried land cables, which crisscross the ocean beds and transmit the vast majority of the world’s data, assisted by numerous satellites and cellular networks.  It is a grid or mesh in which any computer can converse with any other computer on the planet, provided they both are connected to that Net.

     The Net is wired into some 4,000 co-location data centers around the world, half of which are in the United States, and each of which hosts many websites, which are small segments of the World Wide Web, which is in turn built on top of the Net.  There are dozens of root name servers scattered around the planet, but operated by only twelve independent private companies, where domain names are translated into IP addresses that all our devices—computers, tablets, smartphones—can then converse with.  There are 13 vast Google data centers, seven of them in the United States and six of those in the Midwest, where your search history is stored.  There are four massive Facebook data centers, three in the United States and one in Scandinavia, loaded with cute pet photos, vacation vids, birthday and holiday wishes, friend requests, and political rants.  There are other related Net components and filaments, but these are the major ones.

     So now if somebody asks you what the devil the Net is, you’ll be able to explain it to them, right?


Monday, January 8, 2018

Six-word short stories

     Ernest Hemingway is credited with originating this ultra-brief story form.  His memorable example is:
     FOR SALE: Baby shoes.  Never worn.

     Narrative Magazine, in addition to sponsoring various prestigious fiction, poetry, and nonfiction contests, regularly publishes six-word stories on their website and on their iPhone app.  They pay $50 per story (that’s a generous $16.66 per word; I’ve worked for far less in the magazine business over the years).

 A few examples:

      YOUTH by Gabriella Deich
     Three words.  Never spoken.  Always regretted.

     GRIEF, by Alistair Daniel
     Without thinking, I made two cups.

     IN COUNTRY, by Robert Olen Butler
     Saigon Hotel.  Decades later.  He weeps.

     SHY, by sixteen-year-old Marlon Jiminez
     Sitting next to her, saying nothing.

     ERUDITION, by Rickey Pittman
     Politician’s library burns.  Both books lost.

     You can read more examples on the Narrative website in wide variety.  It’s astonishing to me that so much vivid imagery and emotion can be stirred by so few words.

     I’ve come up with a dozen or so and have recently submitted them.
On some bad-weather day, while you’re busily procrastinating, why not take a break and try a few yourself?  They’re more of a challenge than you might think.

     They’re fun, too.