Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

To create Thing Explainer, Randall drew and labeled pictures to—well—explain various scientific and cultural ideas, but he chose to write all the text in the book using only a thousand commonly-used English words, just like he did when he published the comic “Up-Goer Five”.

Using the tool he made, you can write like that, too. Um, that is, you can try. (Good luck.)

The book straddles the border between humor and science. On the one hand, transforming simplified English labels back into conventional ones makes us chuckle; sometimes the “simple” labels are quite obscure, thus deciphering them can be both tricky and rewarding, like the word game Taboo. On the other hand, the simplified English goes a long way towards actually explaining things; science books sometimes raise as many questions as they answer because the explanations in them use terms that are as unfamiliar to readers as whatever the terms are intended to explain.

I think the book is best understood as Randall’s clever way of explaining stuff he knows about to clever people who might or might not know as much as he does on the subjects he chose to address. Seen in this light, the book helps us appreciate the power of words as flexible, useful tools in the hands of a talented wordsmith, and gives us the sense that, in principle, there is nothing under the sun anywhere in the universe (including the sun) that can’t be explained in an approachable way.

See below for when and why I read the book, and a list of the explained things.

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Jokes and the Linguistic Mind by Debra Aarons

Question: What do you call a cross between a collection of hilarious jokes and a collection of dull academic papers written by a dyed-in-the-wool Chomskyan linguist?

Answer: A big disappointment.

Jokes sit at the intersection of language, cognitive psychology and  illusions, all topics that fascinate me. Sadly, however, I was rather bored by Jokes and the Linguistic Mind. I think the reason was not that the author explained the jokes but that she did it in what I felt was an unnecessarily long-winded, robotic, repetitive, jargony kind of way. Anyone who explains jokes takes the well-known risk of killing the frog to understand it better, but I think once you’ve killed the frog, you should jolly well stop beating it like a dead horse.

Silver lining? I love the MC Escher stairscape on the cover. Moreover, many of the jokes used as examples of various linguistic phenomena were funny. See below for more on the aspects of the book I enjoyed.

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Release level to stop

Since the picture is too far away and blurry, you’ll have to take my word for it that these are the steps for using this Downtown Line fire extinguisher:

  1. [pull out the pin, presumably]

(I’m pretty sure they meant “lever”.)

Hang on, I’ve got a slightly better photo:

16 Sep 2017

Here’s the extinguisher in my lift lobby (which says “lever”):

16 Sep 2017

“Dr Bags is the trusted aesthetics clinic for your designer bags.”

I didn’t know designer bags needed an aesthetics clinic, but that’s probably just because I don’t own one.

Unless the upcycled seat-belt kind counts. (Probably not.)

Anyway, I’m posting this photo because I was surprised to see the word “ain’t” used in a Singapore ad. It struck me as especially strange because the ad is for a luxury service. Not, you know, grits or cornbread muffins or something similarly folksy and homey.

The ad says:

It’s not luxury if it ain’t clean.

After I thought about it, I realized there’s a third level of weirdness, which is that the first half of sentence uses “it’s” and the second half of the sentence uses “ain’t”. I guess I would have expected two uses of “it’s” or two uses of “ain’t”, not one of each.

But maybe the contrast between the two contractions explains the whole thing.

The more standard word “it’s” goes with the idea of “luxury” and the more casual word “ain’t” goes with the idea of “not clean”.

Or I’m overthinking it.

You can run but you can’t hide, JM Ice Truck #15

So cute. It’s trying to hide behind that plant, but it doesn’t realize that just because it can’t see me doesn’t mean I can’t see it…

I collect sightings of JM Ice trucks because they’re so colorful. I’ve now seen at least 22 of the 38 or more trucks in the fleet.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen #15, though, and it was sitting still so I got a photo!

I thought usually #37 delivered to Chinatown… Ah well.

Broadchurch (Season 1)

In shows like Lie to Me and House, M.D., there is one mystery per episode. There’s only one mystery—well, one murder mystery; lots of minor “mysteries” and secrets—in Season 1 of Broadchurch, which lasts 8 episodes. I suppose I was expecting a police procedural, but this is a drama. There are lots of long, musical shots of sunsets and waves crashing, and the whole thing feels very melancholy, very human. It wasn’t happy, but it was clever and it was satisfying.

Update: I am given to understand that the series Gracepoint is an American remake, with David Tennant, of the same plot… but different.

…In Fact, It’s Our Specialty!

When I was a teacher, some of my students would bring to class bags displaying the name, logo, and endlessly amusing tagline of Tien Hsia Language School.

So finally I took a photo of the exterior wall of one of the Tien Hsia centers.

I think “Tien Hsia”, or 天下 (pinyin tiānxià), means “the world”.

No durians on trains! (Apparently they still have to remind people.)

Much has changed in Singapore since my husband and I arrived in 2008. But one thing hasn’t: the fines for these four public transit–related transgressions.

  • No eating or drinking (Fine: S$500)
  • No smoking (Fine: S$1000)
  • No flammable goods (Fine: S$5000)
  • No durians (?!?!)

We can only imagine the punishment for bringing a durian on this Downtown Line train…

And by the way, how exactly did it come to be that a hamburger is the universal sign for “food” on “do not eat” signs the world over? That picture is a hamburger, right? And it’s everywhere, isn’t it? Why?