Category Archives: Stuff That Defies Categorizing

The Mortality Fallacy


No, this isn’t a spooky Halloween post. So why the tombstone? It’s because I want to rant about one of the most common errors people who should know better make when it comes to life expectancy.

How many times have you heard that a hundred years ago most people died–pick a number–before they were 45, 50, 60?  Yet maybe you had grandparents who lived into their 70s, and if you visit an old cemetery and look at the dates on tombstones, you’ll find lots of people who lived very long lives.

OK, I’m not disputing that Americans in the 21st century can expect to live longer than their counterparts in the 20th century. But there’s a popular fallacy about life expectancy. It has to do with looking at “average” life expectancy, something that was seriously skewed by high infant mortality rates in the past.

The best way to look at life expectancy is to take the view of actuarial tables, which look at it this way: in a given year, someone who’s 20 years old can expect to live another X years while someone who’s 40 years old can expect to live another Y years, etc.

So here’s what it looked like in 1900:

A baby born in 1900 could expect to live another 48 years. Does that mean most people died before age 50? No. This number reflects the high probability of the child dying in infancy or early childhood.

A child aged 10 in 1900 could expect to live another 50 years.

Someone aged 30 in 1900 could expect to live another 35 years.

(Statistics are from the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

Leave a comment.

Quotable

Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing.

–Salvador Dali

Get That Word off the Tip of Your Tongue

You know the feeling. A word poised on the tip of your tongue, and no matter how hard you try, it just stays there. Well, don’t give up. There are a couple of sources that might help.

OneLook Reverse Dictionary and Thesaurus

I decided to test drive OneLook Reverse Dictionary and Thesaurus. I plugged in a search term: “horse breed with spots” and hit “Enter.” Here are the first four answers in a list of 100: “appaloosa, dalmatian, pointer, Holstein.: The word I had in mind was “pinto” which came in at #52. So I guess this search is most helpful when you know exactly what you’re looking for. That could be problematic if you’re a foreign spy,. Saying “dalmatian” when you should say “dapple” could get you outed.

Being a thesaurus, the site is also good for finding synonyms. An added bonus is that you can find crossword puzzle answers when all you know are a couple of letters (which hardly seems sporting).

Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary

The idea behind Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (4th edition), by Marc McCutcheon is to pin down the right word by looking at a category and sometimes its subcategory. As the author says in the book’s introduction, “Consult Descriptionary whenever you are tempted to use words such as whatchamacallit, thingamajig, or doohickey . . .”

For example,  say you want to find WWII slang for food, you’d go to World War II Slang in the Military category. There you’d find terms like shimmy pudding for Jell-O, kennel rations for hash or meat loaf, and tin titty for canned milk. (The mess hall–or ptomaine alley–isn’t necessarily known for polite conversation.)

My advice is find the terms you want, then take time to browse because you’re almost certain to turn up other gems.

The 711-page fourth edition has some new categories, including Brain, Rocks and Gems, and Torture and Punishment.

Is It Ever Finished?

I published Compromise With Sin on June 1st, but it won’t leave me alone. During the night I woke up with the queasy feeling that I’d said pony when I should have said ponies. It could easily have happened, as I originally had one pony pulling a cart, then decided two would be better. Of course, I had to check it out, and fortunately the ponies are plural.

Quotable

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.

–P.J. O’Rourke

 

How To Read a Novel MOOC

I told you a few weeks ago that I’d signed up for a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called “How To Read a Novel,” offered by the University of Edinburgh and FutureLearn. Well, I’m woefully behind and probably won’t get caught up. But I can tell you after the first couple of weeks that it’s very well done.

The course blends video lecture, illustrated excerpts from novels, reading assignments, and participant comments. I particularly enjoy the comments. Week 2 was an in-depth look at characterization, and one participant noted that she’s mistaken “having read a lot of books with being well-read.” She plans to re-read a number of books.

Compromise With Sin News

On Saturday I’ll participate in an indie authors event at the San Marcos (TX) Public Library. Called “Going Rogue: Self-Publishing 101,” the event is an opportunity for the public to learn “the various aspects of writing, branding, marketing, and generating sales from an interesting panel discussion.” In addition, I and other authors will display and sell books and talk with visitors.

And next Monday, I’ll visit the book club at Brookdale Gaines Ranch in Austin.

Quotable

To unspool a story is to inhabit a different space altogether. You have to let the world in your head grow until it becomes more important than the world you inhabit.

–Christina Baker Kline

Thank-you Notes Trip up This Writer

The other night I was talking with my niece Carol Loucks about writing, and I said I’d rather write a novel than a thank-you note. My approach to thank-yous is to procrastinate forever because the writing will come easier in the future than it will right now. Anyone else share this rationale?

Is there help for people like me? Surely Google has the answer. I dug up several sites that want to help, most of which have the same basic advice. Here’s one from Hallmark: “How To Write a Thank-you Note,” by Jeanne Field.

OK, she has six steps, beginning with the greeting to the sign-off. I get that I’m supposed to say “thank you,” specify what I’m thanking them for, and offer details about how I’ll use the gift. I generally cover all six. Where I get stymied is that the message just feels so stilted. I seal the envelope and stick on the stamp, knowing that it lacks personality. It sounds dumb.

What do you do? Leave a comment. Thank you.

Quotable

Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write fifty-two bad short stories in a row.

–Ray Bradbury

How To Read a Novel

I just signed up for my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It’s called “How To Read a Novel,” hosted by the University of Edinburgh. The eight-hour, four-week class begins July 24th.

How To Read a Novel will explore plot, characterization, dialogue, and setting. I’m looking forward to interacting with a community of readers, potentially from all over the world.

The course is free. For $64 you can upgrade, which means you get a certificate and have unlimited access to course materials for as long as they exist online. With the free version, access extends just 14 days after the course ends.

I’ll keep you posted.

Quotable

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.

–Ray Bradbury

Celebrating Chuck Berry’s Words

When Voyager went into space in 1977, its cargo included a gold 33 1/3 record with 27 songs. Curated by a committee under Carl Sagan, the representative music included Mozart, Stravinsky, a Navajo chant, and “Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry. At the time, Saturday Night Live and Steve Martin played with the idea of aliens’ response to this musical treasury.

Chuck Berry, who died March 18th at the age of 90, lived long enough to see his music leave our solar system and enter interstellar space, a fact NASA confirmed in 2014. Wow.

To bring this blog post back to earth and somewhat consistent with the mission of NovelWords Cafe, I’d like to look at Berry’s lyrics. He’s been called the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll. For example, here are the last lines of “Memphis”:

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

There are several YouTube videos of “Memphis,” the most unusual being one featuring Berry and John Lennon.

Berry also wrote and recorded poetry. You can listen to “My Dream,” recorded in 1971.

Can’t Put That Book Down?

OK, readers, I know some of you get so caught up in a novel that you can’t put it down.  It would be fun to hear your real-life examples.  How would you complete  this sentence: “I was so riveted by (name of novel) that I (blank.)”

I thought of this recently when one of the writing blogs I follow (sorry, I’d link to it if I could remember which one) featured an article that encouraged writers by asking them to imagine how they’d like to have their book reviewed.

Well that got the old adjective factory spinning our of control. “Gripping, mesmerizing, shocking, sensational . . .” I could go on.

Then I took it to the next level. Here’s my favorite imagined review: “This important historical novel speaks to our times and held me spellbound. When the tornado sirens sounded I stuck fast to my favorite reading chair instead of taking shelter. Talk about riveting. I’m writing this from heaven.”

Please leave a comment, even if it’s to tell me I should get back on my meds.

 

 

What’s the True Meaning of “America First?”

In light of Trump’s latest assault on innocent human beings & on values decent Americans hold dear, I’m departing from my planned post & posting a day early. “America First” is hardly a new idea, as this 1941 political cartoon by Dr. Seuss illustrates. It was an ugly sentiment then, & it’s ugly now.

Dr. Seuss, PM Magazine, October 1, 1941

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banished Words List–What Would You Add?

Photo source: Weird Tales
Get your dandruff up?

We all have them: words & phrases that make us wince or groan whenever we hear them. Mine include “snuck,” “anyways,” & “on a daily (hourly, weekly, whatever) basis.” Isn’t it almost a bonding experience when you discover someone shares your bias?

 

Enter the Banished Words List. The 2017 list, released on  New Year’s Day, includes these words along with comments by the committee that selected them from thousands of nominations:

  • “Get your dandruff up”–The Committee is not sure why this malapropism got nominators’ dander up in 2016.
  • Frankenfruit–another food group co-opted by “frankenfood.” Not to be confused with other forms of genetically modified language.
  • Dadbod–The flabby opposite of a chiseled body male ideal. Should not empower dads to pursue a sedentary lifestyle.
  • 831–A texting encryption of I love you: 8 letters, 3 words, 1 meaning. Never encrypt or abbreviate one’s love.

I can’t say I’ve heard of any of these words, but the list is enlightening.

The Banished Words List began as a publicity gimmick on New Year’s Day 1976. The late W. T. “Bill” Rabe, then publicity director for Lake Superior State University in Michigan, thought the list would help put the little-known school on the map. New Year’s Day made sense as a time to reflect on the past year. Besides it was typically a slow news day.

Of course banishing words is an exercise in futility. Take a look at lists for bygone years, e.g., 2010, which included

  • app
  • sexting
  • tweet
  • friend, as a verb

So what words would you like to add to the Banished Words List? Leave a comment.

 

Photo source: Weird Tales magazine, September 1941. Photo is adapted from an ad for a Listerine dandruff treatment.

 

Hero of Your Own Life?

In response to last week’s post “Memorable Words,” Nancy commented with this quote from David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens: “Whether I will be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show.”

My curiosity piqued, I googled & found an enlightening blog called Quote Investigator whose author, Garson O’Toole, has traced the quote’s pedigree.

The first mention is in 1812 (Copperfield was published in 1850) in “Voyages and Travels in 1809, 1810, and 1811,” by John Galt. “Every traveller is necessarily the hero of his own story, especially if he travels alone. If he has the felicity of a companion the unavoidable egotism is obscured by the use of the social pronoun.”

John Barth used the “hero” concept as the basis of “mythotherapy” in his short story, “The Remobilization of Jacob Horner,” & novel, End of the Road, both published in 1958. The doctor explains: “‘In life,’ he said, ‘there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent all fiction and biography and most historiography is a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.'”

My favorite example is from a 1920 editorial about a man accused of one murder confessing to seven. “Whatever we may say, whatever we may think we think, down at the bottom is the fundamental craving that each man must in some way satisfy–the craving to be the hero of his own story. And so, some of us die at the stake for a holy principle and others of us confess to seven murders and 1000 burglaries, and the rest of us find ways equally satisfactory, if less sensational, of making ourselves heroes in our own eyes.”

Speaking of murders, I could easily kill a few hours wandering about the Quote Investigator site. I may need to buy O’Toole’s book: Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.