Access to both of my recent columns is free and unrestricted, so share away. Here’s an excerpt from the Pluto column:
Mordor, Cthuhlu, Meng-Po’o, and Tombaugh Regio. What sounds like the title of a Jorge Luis Borges short story is in fact a partial list of informal names for newly discovered features on Pluto and Charon. (Formal names must be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but as one project scientist tweeted, “Cannot just say ‘that dark spot.’ ‘No I meant that dark spot.’”) Many of them are drawn from “your darkest imaginings,” as the science blog i09 put it—and consistent with the established names of Pluto’s moons, including Styx (in Greek myth, the river of death), Cerberus (the three-headed hellhound that guards the underworld), and Nix (the Greek goddess of night). The new names depart from classical mythology and enter fictional realms: The dark area at Charon’s polar region, for example, has been tagged Mordor, from the wasteland in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. On Pluto itself, an area originally dubbed “the whale” is now called Cthuhlu, after the fictional deity invented by H.P. Lovecraft; and Meng Po’o is the Buddhist “lady of forgetfulness.” An exception to the pattern is the Tombaugh Regio—literally “region of Tombaugh”—which honors Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. For a long list of Plutonian names suggested by the public, see the Our Pluto discussion forum.
Randall Munroe of xkcd offers his own nomenclature for newly identified Plutonian features. I especially like Debate Hole, “where we’re putting all the people still arguing about Pluto’s planet status.”
“When Simon Tam dropped out of college in California and moved to Portland, Ore., to become a rock star, the last tangle he imagined falling into was a multiyear battle with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over his band’s name.” The trademark tussle over “The Slants,” which the USPTO has deemed “disparaging” and thus ineligible for protection. (For a more technical perspective, see this Brent Lorentz post at Duets Blog.)
The strange charm of cutthroat compounds like pickpocket, scarecrow, and, well, cutthroat: Stan Carey on these rare English words“that have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.” (I wonder how the newish fondleslab fits in?)
The 2014 Social Security Administration stats on baby names are out, and the Baby Name Wizard blog has discovered some interesting trends in the data. The biggest trend? What naming expert Laura Wattenberg calls “the great smoothing of American baby names”: goodbye “chunky” names (Jayden, Jessica), hello “silky,” vowel-rich names (Amanda, Mia, Noah, Liam).
Speaking of popular names, here’s a fun tool to discover what your “today baby name” would be, based on the ranking of your own name in the year you were born. The tools works backward too: If I’d been born in the 1890s, chances are I’d have been named Minnie. More than a time-waster, the tool can be a big help in character-naming. (May take a while for the tool to load.)
“She originally went by Flo White, then Lord of the Strings. She eventually settled on the Period Fairy. It was more straightforward.” A new ad from category-busing Hello Flo, which sells a Period Starter Kit to adolescent girls.
I thought it was a joke when I first heard about it two or three years ago: a bear that was part-grizzly, part-polar bear, roaming the land where tundra meets sea ice? People called it the grolar bear, I was told, or sometimes the pizzly bear.
Pizzly bear? I thought at the time. Come on.
But the hybrid is very real. (Although, clearly, “grolar bear” is the superior choice of name.) And if some scientists’ predictions are correct, it could be just one of a whole host of potential hybrid mammal species to emerge from the Arctic as it continues to warm.
Polar and grizzly bears have long been bred in captivity, but the first wild hybrid wasn’t seen until 2006, when hunter shot “an odd looking bear—white with brown patches” in the Canadian Arctic. Since then, at least three other sightings (two unconfirmed) have been reported. Unlike some interspecies hybrids, these animals are fertile.
Brendan Kelly, the chief scientist and director of conservation research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, spent 35 years in Alaska studying Alaskan marine mammals; in an interview with Holland, he theorized that the rapid disappearance of Arctic sea ice is leading to a dramatic rise in hybridization. There’s evidence, he said, that beluga whales and narwhals are mating in the eastern Arctic. The hybridization “is cause for concern,” writes Holland:
With every mating season that rolls around, each remaining polar bear will be statistically more likely to encounter and mate with a grizzly rather than a fellow polar bear. That will produce more hybrids, which will also be more likely to mate with a grizzly bear or a fellow hybrid. And so on.
“It can be the final nail in the coffin,” Kelly says.
In addition to grolar bear and pizzly bear, the Arctic hybrid has also been dubbed nanulak, a blend of the Inuit names for polar bear (nanuk) and grizzly bear (aklak).
“Years ago, I asked one of my mentors what he thought was the hardest part of designing a typeface. I was expecting ‘the cap S’ or ‘the italic lowercase’ or something like that. But he answered without hesitation: the name. Finding the name is the hardest part.” (Tobias Frere-Joneson the names of typefaces, via Michael Bierut)
“Can I stipulate the awesomeness of a lawsuit based on parts of speech?” Ben Yagoda on the trademark dispute between management consultant Dov Seidman and yogurt maker Chobani over the slogan “How Matters.” (Lingua Franca)
In a tribute to Hayao Miyazaki, director of My Neighbor Totoro and many other brilliant animated films, a new species of velvet worm has been namedEoperipatus totoro. (Via Tom Moultrie)
Eoperipatus totoro. Catbus in My Neighbor Totoro.
“Foodster,” “chefstaurateur,” “drool-worthy”: the food site Eater would very much like to ban their use forever. Not sure what “kerfuffle” is doing on that list—it’s a perfectly cromulent word! (Eater, via Lisa Newman-Wise)
“Crone”? “UAV”? “RPA”? A lot of people in the drone industry hate the word “drone,” but they can’t agree on a replacement. (Wall Street Journal)
In April, Microsoft announced the launch of Cortana, its new digital personal assistant for Windows Phone 8.1.
Like the iPhone’s Siri, Cortana takes feminine pronouns. Some examples (cute or smarmy, depending on your perspective) from the Windows Phone website:
“Before you can get all the goodies Cortana has to offer, you’ll need to make sure she’s on. If you like, you can help her get to know you a little better, too.”
“If you turn Cortana on, for her to work for you, Microsoft collects and uses your location, contacts, voice input, info from email and text messages, browser history, search history, calendar details, and other info.”
“She’ll ask if you mind answering a few questions—this will help her understand what’s important to you and what information she should bring to your attention.”
“Cortana” will ring a bell for anyone familiar with Xbox games—it’s the name of a character, voiced by actress Jen Taylor, introduced in Halo: Combat Evolved, the first-person-shooter game published in 2001 by Microsoft Game Studios. In that game and its many sequels, Cortana is an artificial-intelligence construct that resides as a neural implant in the battle armor of the protagonist, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117.
Cortana as she appears in Halo 4. Source: Wikipedia.
Since “Cortana” was already part of the extended Microsoft brand universe, it was quickly adopted as the codename for the digital personal assistant, wrote Tom Warren in article published in April in the online tech-culture publication The Verge. “We didn’t intend for it to be the actual product name from the beginning,” Windows Phone product manager Marcus Ash told Warren. And it very nearly wasn’t:
The fact Cortana exists simply as Cortana, and not some marketing buzz like “Microsoft Personal Digital Assistant Home Premium” is surprising given Microsoft’s history of naming products. Up until a few weeks ago, it was hit and miss whether Cortana would be the final name. It could have been Naomi, Alyx, or a number of other suggestions, but leaks and a petition to use the Cortana name helped sway Microsoft’s decision.
The Halo connection has been deliberately exploited: the voice actor from the game, Jen Taylor, also voices the digital assistant. The strategy “meshes well with Microsoft’s main goal for the product: recreate a real personal assistant without being too creepy,” Warren wrote.
But the story of the Cortana name goes beyond Halo.
A lower-case cortana—sometimes spelled curtana—is a type of sword with a blunted or broken end, also known as a “sword of mercy.” The word entered English in the 15th century, adapted from cortain, the name of the sword carried by Roland in the early medieval French epic poem La Chanson de Roland; another character in the Roland poem, Ogier the Dane, carries a similar sword named Curtana. Cortana, curtana, and cortain are all related to Latin curtus (“short”). According to “The Modern Mythos,” an essay by Jill MacKay in Halo Effect: An Unauthorized Look at the Most Successful Video Game of All Time, the game’s allusion to these medieval sources is deliberate. (The name of another Halo AI character, Marathon 2’s Durandal, is a slight variation of Durendal, another of Roland’s legendary swords.)
Curtanas are still seen in the modern era, if only symbolically: in the British coronation ceremony, the monarch carries a curtana.
A 1935 revenue stamp (UK) depicting the ‘'curtana or sword of mercy” carried by King George VI during his coronation. Via I.B. RedGuy.
The name was taken from a character of the science fiction franchise "Halo", and alludes to the convoluted markings on the shell surface of the holotype of Cortana carvalhoi. Grammatical gender: feminine.
Klotho: A gene that plays a role in regulating the aging process in animals. Sometimes spelled in all capital letters and often abbreviated as KL, the gene was named for Klotho, the Greek goddess of fate who spins the thread of the life. Klotho’s sister-Fates, or Moirae, are Lachesis, who determines the length of life, and Atropos, who cuts the thread. Klotho is also the name of a pleiotropic protein (pleiotropic: producing more than one effect) encoded in the KL gene.
Klotho was discovered in 1997 by a team of Japanese scientists. It was in the news last week when scientists at UC San Francisco and the Gladstone Institutes (also in San Francisco) announced the discovery of a KL variant that improves learning and memory. The findings were published in Cell Reports.
The researchers found that people who carry a single copy of the KL-VS variant of the KLOTHO gene perform better on a wide variety of cognitive tests. When the researchers modeled the effects in mice, they found it strengthened the connections between neurons that make learning possible – what is known as synaptic plasticity – by increasing the action of a cell receptor critical to forming memories.
Klotho (the Latin form is Clotho) translates to “the spinner,” but it’s not related to English cloth, which comes to us almost unchanged from an Old English word, claþ—the last letter is thorn, pronounced th—that meant a cloth or a sail. The word for “spinner” in Old English was spinnan.
Today, March 14, is Pi Day (3.14), at least in countries that express dates in that order. Somewhere in the trillion digits of pi I’m pretty sure there’s a 23, which is my number of the day. Here are some 23-named brands … and some loosely related factoids.
TechCrunch calls the photo-sharing app 23snaps“a Facebook for families.”
Did you know that there are 23 pairs of chromosomes that carry all of the genetic information that makes your child the wonderful, unique person they grow to be? One chromosome, like one photograph, is just not enough to tell the whole story.
When I originally wrote about 23andMe, in 2007, the company was just over a year old and still doing DNA testing for health risks. It has a new logo now.
Founded April 2006 in Mountain View, California.
It also has changed its business model. In December 2013, in response to a Food and Drug Administration warning letter, 23andMe suspended its health testing. It now provides only “ancestry-related genetic reports.”
I’m guessing the b---- has 23 pairs of chromosomes.
The origin of “23 skidoo,” a phrase associated with the 1920s but in fact a couple of decades older, is shrouded in mystery. Barry Popik’s Big Apple blog discredits three popular theories; the World Wide Words discussion forum shredsseven. It is a dead certainty that the “23” has no relationship to human chromosomes, because their correct number wasn’t determined until 1956.
There is a vintage-clothing store called 23 Skidoo in Campbell, California (Santa Clara County).
When you first enter the water and begin your swim, your body reacts by constricting the peripheral blood vessels in your arms and legs. This helps prevent heat loss by consolidating your body heat into your core. And as long as you continue with your physical activity, you will easily preserve a stable temperature.
However, once you end your swim and exit the water, your body sends your blood back to the skin to “warm up.” Because your skin is very cold at this point, your blood actually gets colder and is then recirculated back to your core. In essence, your core body temperature actually decreases during this rewarming period in a phenomenon known as the “afterdrop.”
Afterdrop is part of the specialized lingo of physicians and emergency workers, and it’s also familiar to cold-water swimmers like me and other members of San Francisco’s Dolphin and South End clubs, where we swim year round, without wetsuits, in San Francisco Bay. Water temperature in our part of the bay ranges between 50°F/10°C (January) and 66°F/19°C (September, if ever). To prevent afterdrop, swimmers and boaters are advised to go horizontal; warm up gradually, preferably in a sauna or swaddled in blankets; and avoid drinking alcoholic beverages. (Some hypothermia resources recommend continued exercise. The truth, according to a physician I consulted, is “No one knows.”)
Dolphin Club member Dr. Thomas J. Nuckton, a specialist in pulmonary and critical care medicine, conducted a study of 11 Dolphin Club members who had swum from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park on New Year’s Day in 1998. (It’s an annual tradition.) His findings, published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2000, included the observation that 10 of the 11 swimmers had experienced core afterdrop of at least 1.8°F. Nuckton also tells the story of 16 Danish fishermen who were rescued after spending an hour in open water; although they were able to climb aboard the rescue vessel, all of them later died of hypothermia.
The OED’s earliest citation for afterdrop (spelled after-drop in the dictionary) is a 1945 British report: “Rewarming must be rapid to cushion the ‘after-drop’ in temperature, which continues to fall for 10 to 15 minutes after the subject is removed from the cold water.” (That is, rewarming must commence quickly; it’s now considered risky to rewarm a patient too rapidly.)
The English word has a grim history, according to the OED: “Originally after German Nachsinken (1942 in a typescript document reporting the results of experiments on live subjects at the Dachau concentration camp, later used as part of the Nuremberg trials).”