Tag: UK

Day 746: Punctuation – Not Just For Cartoon Speech-Bubble Swears

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Today I’m going to opt for a markedly insular approach and write about some of the tools I keep scattered about my proverbial writing desk. I’m not talking about my retread and tired metaphors, nor the antiquated pop culture references that pepper my daily prose (though those are just dyn-o-mite!). On a much simpler scale, these are the trinkets that keep my writing from running on like a babbling drunkard or looking like a poorly-phrased ee cummings poem.

Punctuation.

“Shit,” you are no doubt thinking. “He’s going to write about punctuation? What happened to writing about stolen brains or lousy movies?” I know, I get that. But had I known just how interesting the topic of punctuation might be, I might not have put off writing about it for 746 days. There’s a world of intrigue in those little blips and squiggles. Well maybe not intrigue in the spy-thriller-mystery-explosions sense of the word. But certainly enough to merit three and a half minutes of your attention.

Ampersand

As you can see, the symbol for the ampersand has evolved from a lower-case ‘h’ that has been slapped on the back to a half-finished bathroom-stall piece of dink graffiti to a prototype wheelchair access placard, and eventually into the little swoosh we know and love today. Its origins are a stylistic scrunching of the Latin ‘ET’, meaning (unsurprisingly) ‘and’. Though we have now relegated the mighty ampersand to a shorthand and/or stylish alternative (“Hall & Oates” is so much snazzier than “Hall and Oates”), the little guy used to have a place in our alphabet, right at the end. Read more…

Day 737: (Just) Rest (ing. Leave Me) In Peace

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When a journalist was dispatched in 1897 to confirm the rumors that Mark Twain was near death, the author – whose cousin was actually the sick one – famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Leave it to the granddad of American humor to reduce bogus speculation and rampant rumor-chasing to a delightfully quotable line of schtick.

There are several reasons why a premature obituary might slither through the fact-checking cracks and splatter into the world. Sometimes the person in question has faked their death. Maybe someone with a similar name passed away and somewhere along the gossip lines the ball was dropped. Mostly it’s merely a question of someone screwing up.

This is why any Facebook post, any tweet or any text regarding a famous person’s demise must be double or even triple-checked before being forwarded to all one’s friends and family. No one wants to be the egg-faced schmuck who peddles bogus info. We all have enough of those on our feeds.

Yeah, I’m talking to you, Uncle Kirby. I looked it up – the male actors from Full House did not die together in a weird orgy in John Stamos’s sauna last weekend. And while we’re at it, quit inviting me to play friggin’ Candy Crush.

MarcusGarvey

Marcus Garvey was a black nationalist, a Jamaican leader, and a Rastafarian prophet. His ideas influenced millions, and his words tickled the depths of his followers’ souls. Then, shortly after he’d suffered a stroke in 1940, the Chicago Defender proclaimed that the man had died “broke, alone and unpopular.” A powerful prickle of anxiety jabbed at Mr. Garvey from his insides when he read this, prompting a second stroke to swoop in and finish the job. Five months later, Garvey was dead. This may be the best example of the importance of double-checking vital signs I’ve ever heard. Read more…

Day 734: Cranking Up the Craptastic – Worst Music Part 2

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Whenever I’m feeling a little too happy, a little too comfortable within the overstuffed throw-pillows of our culture, I like to remind myself how easy it is to unzip those cushions and catch a whiff of the rancid stuffing inside. We may pride ourselves on our Breaking Bads, our Blue Jasmines, and our Elvis Costello & The Roots records, but this is the same twisted species that also spews out crap-heaps of TLC shows, a nonstop cavalcade of Madea movies, and… well, these musical offerings.

I have devoted 19 of my 733 days to exploring the crowd-roasted excrement that has squeezed through the virtual anus of our corporate culture-makers, only to be (usually) swallowed up by the masses in some deluded mass-hysterical case of collective scatophagia. Maybe I’m trying to understand why we persist in the dank shadow of quality. Why do we support drivel and detritus when the crests of artistic brilliance have showered us with so many more palatable alternatives?

There are questions of taste, and subjective preference should always be approached with a cautious and respectful gait. But then there’s crap. Pure crap. So much pure and loathsome crap.

CheekyGirls

Some artists can get away with songs that serve no other purpose than to introduce themselves. Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley” is a great tune with a magnetic rhythm. “(Theme From) The Monkees” was literally the theme song to the band’s TV show. But 80% of “Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)” by the Cheeky Girls involves the two lines: “We are the cheeky girls” and “You are the cheeky boys.” Seriously, those lines are repeated about sixty times. We get it. It’s a pun. Read more…

Day 728: Creative Anti-Crime Tech

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Presbycusis.

Not a word one hears often in polite conversation, in fact it’s not a word that the good folks at Microsoft felt necessary to plop into their default dictionary, according to the squiggly red snake of shame underneath what I just typed. But among those who have devoted their lives to fighting crime – and here we’re talking about the manufacturers of theft-deterrents, not Batman – it’s a word that has led to a technological breakthrough that can save shop-owners from untold amounts of stress.

The technological side of crime prevention is not simply alarm systems, security cameras and high-power laser-scoped potato guns. There’s a vast catalog of ideas out there, aiming to shut down crime before it happens. Store managers and even civilians are encouraged to dig around and find the solution that works best for them. My personal approach to avoiding theft is simply to not own anything worth stealing. Also, if I’m ever mugged I find that spontaneously ranting about Corey Feldman whilst drooling profusely will encourage most street thugs to retreat quietly back into the shadows.

But I’ll always applaud more creative and practical solutions.

17thCenturyMedicine

Back in the days when leeches were more common a medical remedy than aspirin, doctors knew disturbingly little about what keeps the great mechanism a-tickin’ in our innards. We can thank the pioneers of anatomical study for advancing our collective knowledge and teaching us that our sicknesses are more likely to be caused by the squishy pink stuff  under our skin than a poorly-aligned spate of bad humors. But to learn about our inner anatomy, doctors and medical students needed to poke around the mushy bits of our deceased brethren. And deceased brethren were not always easy to come by. Read more…

Day 701: Drunken Orgies & Monkeys With Sweater-Vests – December Holidays

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It’s that time of the year once again when we flip over that last wobbly sheet of our wall calendar and marvel at the… oh. It’s a winter scene. Why does every location-based wall calendar feel the need to stick a snowy representation of their subject on the December page? I live in a city where it has been winter for upwards of a month – I don’t need to see Times Square under snow, a frosty mountain in the Italian Alps or 17th Street in Cleveland bathed in frost (some of my calendar choices are extremely specific).

December is when I want to see sun, I want to see optimism. I don’t need a reminder that I’m facing five more months of bulky coats and gritty snirt. But in the minds of calendar-makers, December is little more than winter and Christmas. Well I’m calling bullshit.

I know, there’s Chanukah and Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve and probably a full moon somewhere among those 31 white squares, but I prefer to look a little deeper to find the toasts few people choose to make. It’s a good way to appreciate the intricacies of our global culture, and also an effective excuse for more toasting and therefore more drinking.

BlackFriday

Like Black Friday, for example. No, not that ludicrous excuse to pour an unreasonable amount of one’s income into the retail industry – that’s in November and that’s more something to regret than to celebrate. A true party-lover will acknowledge Black Friday as the last Friday before Christmas, which in the UK is the most popular night for office gatherings of pseudo-merriment and pretending you like and trust your coworkers enough to allow them to see you perform that Michael McDonald impression that always seems to rise to your lips after a few spiked eggnogs. Read more…

Day 687: The *INDISPUTABLE* Big Box O’ Juke – 80’s Edition

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I have, in the past, been accused of acute music snobbery, mostly by people whose names I never bothered to commit to memory. Yes, as an employee of Music World for the summer of 1993 I would regularly look down on customers who purchased music that I deemed to be weak and unworthy of sharing the New Release rack with the 20th anniversary re-issue of Dark Side of the Moon. But I’d only do so in my head and to co-workers after those customers had left the premises. Usually.

And while I hold my own artistic opinion as a more accurate barometer of objective quality than that of the Billboard chart-driven display of ludicrous public embracement, I would be the last to declare my tastes to be definitively correct. I am a child of the 1980’s, an era when music didn’t have to be musicologically intricate – or even necessarily good – to be a terrific record. I’m okay with this – if someone whose sense of auditory aesthetics tells me that Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days” is a crap single, I will quietly acknowledge a perfectly valid crevice of opinion, even if I feel they are wrong.

But there are some songs that seem to be objectively inarguable – purely and unavoidably great pieces of music. These are tracks that even the neo-hipsters of that decade will tap their feet to, the ones that truly warrant the moniker of ‘classic’. I’ve written about 80’s music before, but with these songs I can’t imagine any dissent. Or, you could comment below and prove me wrong.

But you won’t.

BruceSpringsteen

In 1984 there was no under-bed hidey-hole so remote it could not be penetrated by some portion of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA album. It still holds the record (along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller) for having spawned seven top-10 hit singles; that’s seven massive hits off a twelve-track LP. And while perhaps you could uncover some twisted soul who’ll stick up their noses at “Dancing In The Dark” or “Glory Days”, I simply cannot fathom not cranking up the volume to “Cover Me.” Read more…

Day 670: Tricking And Treating And Singing And Eating

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In a few hours I will be visited by a myriad of Captain Jack Sparrows and Spidermen, Walking Dead-types and three-and-a-half-foot Jedi. Some kids will get the good chocolate, while others will get the crap made with compound chocolate (damn you, Oh Henry!). The pathetic kids over 15 with dollar-store devil horns and an Insane Clown Posse shirt will get an icy glare and maybe a box of raisins. I should really pick up some raisins.

And I’ll probably think back to my own days of trick-or-treating. The two years I dressed up as Yoda, complete with a full-on latex mask. The year I went as Michael Dukakis (along with my friend, who dressed up as George H.W. Bush). My one outing as Beldar Conehead, ten years after the character had left TV and four years before they made that movie. It was fun, it was cold, and it sated my sweet tooth – often to the point of nausea – for at least a week.

It seems only logical then, rather than to prattle on about the Gaelic Samhain roots of Halloween, to poke instead around the archeological bones of the portion of the holiday that brought me mirth as a child. Today I loathe dressing up in costume for Halloween parties. But I still enjoy noshing on the goodies left over once the lights go out and the kids stop a-knockin’.

ClownsFloozieBatman

When Halloween began, the only acceptable costumes were clowns, floozies, and Batman.

Back in the late medieval days, when every day without the plague was a day worth celebrating, poor folks used to wander from door to door, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for food on All Souls Day, November 2. This tradition, called ‘souling’, started in Ireland and Britain, but was clearly happening in spots all around Europe. In Scotland, where they really know how to party, the act of ‘guising’ was recorded as early as 1895. This involved children in disguise carrying lanterns made from scooped-out turnips, walking around town and receiving cakes, fruit and money. Read more…

Day 664: The Toys In Marvin’s Playroom

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Do you recognize this man?

Probably not, but if you’re over 30 he probably had a thunderous impact on your childhood. That’s Marvin Glass, concoctor of toys, brewmaster of amusement, mixologist of mirth. Marvin Glass & Associates was a fiendishly clever company, foregoing the tedious chore of peddling their goods to every toy merchant in the land, and instead focussing on creation. License it out to Hasbro or Kenner or Milton Bradley – let them do the filthy work of shipping this crap all over the country.

Let’s just make some good crap.

And oh did they make some astoundingly bodacious crap. Toys that spurned obsessions, toys that became icons. For a few marvelous decades in the 20th century, back before every toy needed a synergetic tie-in to a movie franchise, book series or procession of idiotic movies, Marvin Glass’s goods reigned supreme.

TalkingTeeth

It all started with a set of chattering teeth. Marvin’s employee, Eddy Goldfarb, came up with a concept so ludicrously simple and noisy it had to be a hit: the Yakkity-Yak Talking Teeth. This windup novelty put Marvin Glass & Associates on the map in 1949. The dentist community was finally rewarded with the desktop gimmick they’d craved for centuries. Overnight, the world was a happier and more peaceful place. Read more…

Day 654: Craving A Bud? Better Watch What You Pour

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In the bustling city of České Budêjovice in the southern part of the Czech Republic, there exists a strange reminder of the mammoth reach of the American justice system. This little city of about 96,000 people is known in German and English as ‘Budweis’. Sure, they have an Academy of Sciences and the University of South Bohemia, but the place is more famous for its beer.

Czechs take their beer notoriously seriously. The country boasts the highest per capita beer consumption in the entire world, a fact that no will no doubt shock anyone who brags about the mighty beer muscles of some other ethnicity (Irish, German, Wisconsonite, whatever). The beer that gets exported from this nation tends to have a refreshing little hoppy bite, followed by a smooth and thirst-annihilating finish. They’re usually pale lagers worthy of a tall skinny glass to boast its contents’ frothy afro.

So how did this little city get embroiled in a legal feud with an American corporate giant? This is the oily murk of trademark law, a quirky booth in the back corner of the legal diner. It’s most certainly essential – we don’t want poor Ronald McDonald’s classic golden arches to be cheapened by some muffler shop that wants to cash in on the icon’s familiarity. But sometimes the world of trademark law gets a little goofy.

Budweiser-Bier

In 1795, years before Anheuser and Busch unleashed their Clydesdales upon the breaks between Super Bowl quarters, a group of local brewers started up Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis, which is German for ‘Civic Brewhouse Budweis’. The beer became known as ‘Budweiser’ because it was made in Budweis, just as the beer made in Plzen (or ‘Pilsen’ in English) is known as Pilsner. They started exporting it to America around 1875. Read more…

Day 645: Luscious, Lovable Licorice

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As I twist off the wrapper of my final Candy Week installment, I quietly hope my sweet tooth has been suitably sated. In actual fact, the only time my words brought an unconquerable craving to my lips was the night after my Kit Kat piece. I felt no guilt in this indulgence – one flavorful reward in seven days shows an impressive forbearance on my part. Well, one so far. The jury will remain in deliberation so long as the taste of today’s kilograph on licorice remains on my fingertips.

To be more precise, today’s topic is that of liquorice, not licorice. The distinction in spelling is mostly regional, but I’m going to stick with the North American ‘licorice’, primarily because it appears in Microsoft Word’s dictionary, and I don’t feel like looking at a bunch of squiggly red lines this morning.

Unless they’re made of red licorice. Ha. See what I did there? Yep, this is a promising start.

LiquoriceTobacco

The licorice plant is technically a legume, like beans, peanuts or alfalfa. This could be the most innocuously unimportant snippet of trivia you will hear all day. Somewhat more interesting is the fact that more than 60% of the licorice harvested and sold each year doesn’t get made into candy, but actually finds its way into tobacco. This number is down from about 90% back in 1975, when practically every American cigarette or dollop of snuff, chewing tobacco and pipe tobacco featured a touch of licorice among its myriad of  carcinogenic chemicals. Read more…