Cheesecake: what is it?

February 22, 2016

I have written few block posts in recent months except about books I have written, but the article I read today about cheesecake just seemed worth sharing. Maybe it’s because I am fascinated by words and their meanings. Or maybe it’s because my family loves cheesecake.

Cheesecake, despite its name, has little in common with cake except being a dessert generally served in wedges or block shapes. But if it’s not a cake, what is it? This article from Atlas Obscura (one of my favorite sources of information about unusual places and things) explores the history and nature of cheesecake as it pursues an answer to this question.

Books: Made in America

May 8, 2015

Years ago I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue – English and How It Got That Way, so when I saw his book Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States in the library, I thought it would be interesting to get a similar treatment of specifically American English.

I have read that The Mother Tongue is full of factual errors, so I would not be surprised to find out that Made in America is also. After all, Bryson is neither a trained linguist nor historian. But I admire both his wide-ranging interests (he has obviously read widely on the subject, regardless of his degree of expertise), and he writes well.

What does annoy me is that there is more general history than history of language. Obviously, the history of language depends on the general history, and I enjoy the history itself. But I was looking forward to learning the reasons behind more of the changes to pronunciation and vocabulary.

He cites some, certainly, but other times he merely states the fact that they happened. More than once he goes through a long list of neologisms, in each case citing the year each first appeared. Why in the world would I care about the year if there is no explanation of the origin of the word or phrase? Of course he can’t list them all, but why mention so many while answering no questions about them?

Still, it’s an entertaining and sometimes educational book. I enjoy history, and Bryson mentioned all sorts of facts I wasn’t familiar with (even if I’m not positive whether everything I learned from him is accurate). And along the way I learned a bit about the history of some words. I now understand why we say “ten of nine” to mean 8:50 (the preposition of used to be used in other ways that have mostly faded from use), and the convoluted history of filibuster, among many other linguistic factoids.

But I think the book would be more accurately subtitled “An Informal History of America Including Comments on American English.”

Many moods of silence

October 24, 2014

This morning I was reading Psalm 62, and I was struck by the word “silence” in the first line.

For God alone my soul waits in silence;

Then again in verse 5,

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence

Yet in verse 8, I read this

Trust in him at all times, O people;
    pour out your heart before him

So what does it mean to pour out my heart before God while at the same time waiting in silence?

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Books: Ella Minnow Pea

January 17, 2013

This is another book I read because it was the monthly selection for the book discussion group I joined in November. (Unfortunately, it’s also another book I won’t get to discuss at the book club due to schedule conflicts.) It is short and an easy read – unless you are troubled by encountering vocabulary words you don’t know and feel obliged to look them up in a dictionary.

I rarely encounter words I don’t know, but this book had some, such as aposiopesis. They didn’t interfere with my understanding what was going on, but I found myself wondering whether author Mark Dunn even knew all the words himself or if he had to go specifically looking for unusual words to include. The entire book is a play on words, and on letters.

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Games: Puzzle Baron’s Acrostics

September 29, 2012

I don’t remember exactly how I found the website for Puzzle Baron’s Acrostics. (I think I had been looking at the crossword puzzle feature of the Wall Street Journal; maybe it was linked from there.) But once I found it, I immediately bookmarked it. And I have lost count of how many times I have been back in the past few days, or how many puzzles I have solved.

I’ve liked acrostics since I first learned how to do them in books of variety puzzles as a child. But the one time I found a book of just acrostics, they were so hard that I’m not sure I ever managed to finish a single one. (I think they were reprinted from the New York Times, which has very difficult acrostic puzzles.) Recently I have discovered that the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday puzzle is sometimes an acrostic, and I can solve those, even if it does take me at least an hour, usually two or three (over the course of the weekend).

Puzzle Baron’s acrostic puzzles are considerably easier. I have only twice asked for a hint (three random letters are revealed), and those were in the first four puzzles I solved there. But they are still challenging enough to be enjoyable. I never manage to get all the clues on the first time through the list (unlike easy crossword puzzles where I rarely get stuck even for a brief time). Some of them even have me stumped for a few minutes.

One way they are easier is that the quotations are shorter and there are fewer clues. Sometimes fewer clues does not mean easier – if you can only solve two clues out of a dozen, it’s really no easier than if you solve four out of two dozen. But in general these are also easier clues – sometimes I do get at least half of them on the first time through. (Sometimes I think I have gotten more than half, but there is usually at least one that turns out not to work.)

Having the puzzle automatically transfer letters from the clues to the grid, or from the grid to the clues, is a bigger help than I thought it would be. It seems that almost every time I work an acrostic on paper, I manage to misplace at least one letter, a mistake that makes it hard to solve the puzzle and which I do not discover until I am just about finished.

It’s also great to be able to guess letters that I’m not sure of, knowing that I can change them several times without having to worry about making holes in the paper from erasing too many times. Though it’s annoying to have to go back and re-type letters because the program apparently cannot keep up with me if I type too fast, and it overwrites one letter with the next one I type.

And these acrostics fill in punctuation, which is not ordinarily done – at least not in the acrostics I have worked on before. That makes it easier to start to make sense of the quotation – though I can still be thrown off by a quotation that does not follow all the rules of grammar I learned in school.

These acrostics do still follow the convention of having the first letters of clues (the answers to them, that is) spell out the name of the author of the quote and/or the work in which it is found. That made me start wondering – just how does one go about creating this kind of puzzle? I recently read a book about crossword puzzle construction, and that seems difficult enough, but creating an acrostic must be even more difficult.

The writer of this blog post certainly seems to think so. As a matter of fact, he compares the difficulty of constructing an acrostic with the difficulty of constructing an electric car, and concludes that the car is the easier project. I don’t know how tongue-in-cheek that might be, but his post details all the reasons I think the puzzles must be difficult to create. (He states that they can have no more than 26 clues, since the clues are traditionally listed as A, B, C, etc. rather than 1, 2, 3, etc. But I am sure I have done acrostics with clues that went past Z into AA, AB, etc.)

This article doesn’t tell much about the process of constructing an acrostic, but it does include some interesting history, not just of acrostic puzzles, but of acrostics in general.

Arrrrgh – I didn’t talk like a pirate today

September 19, 2012

If I still worked in a large IT department, sitting at the front desk where I had occasion to chat with my colleagues over the course of the day, it would not have been mid-afternoon before I found out that today was Talk Like a Pirate Day. Not that most of the developers and system administrators actually went around saying “Avast” – but one of them would have mentioned something.

As it was, I was sitting down at a meeting when the VP of Student Services commented on the fact. He didn’t go on to actually talk like a pirate, and I wondered if he had acquired his knowledge from a student, his online resources, or a general interest in nerdy topics (an interest he may or may not have – he is my supervisor but I don’t really know him yet). He did mention that celebration of the day really took off ten years ago when Dave Barry wrote about it – something I hadn’t known before.

I found out from that it could more accurately be called Talk Like Robert Newton Day. Or perhaps Talk Like Disney Day. Not that I ever thought the presumed pirate-style talk was all that historically accurate, but I was surprised to learn that it has such a recent origin. And from the purveyors of Mickey Mouse!

Despite the comments at the end of the article, I don’t think National Geographic is trying to spoil anyone’s fun, or take a silly topic too seriously. Their role is education, and people like me appreciate learning more about the origins of today’s good-humored “pirate talk.” It wouldn’t stop me from talking like a (Disney) pirate, if I were so inclined.

It was actually a crossword puzzle that made me realize, one day recently, how inaccurate the pseudo-pirate talk is. Consider the opening lines at the Talk Like a Pirate Day website: “Avast, me hearties! Welcome…” Wouldn’t you guess, from that opening, that avast was some sort of greeting? So I was very surprised to discover that a five-letter word meaning “Stop!” is AVAST.

Next thing you know, I suppose I’ll be reading that pirates didn’t really wear earrings and have parrots perched on their shoulders…

Games: Word Zen

September 3, 2012

I had one game credit left at Big Fish Games (the result of forgetting to cancel my membership after buying a game for my son for Christmas), and only a couple of weeks left until it expired. Usually I have trouble finding any games there that appeal to me, but I had purchased two recently for my son (with the other game credits from forgetting to cancel), so I looked for something I could enjoy myself.

And I found Word Zen. Unlike most of the games at Big Fish Games, there is no storyline. That is a drawback in my son’s eyes, but it’s just fine with me. I’d rather the game developers put their time and effort into making the game run well, look good, and provide a good range of difficulty levels, rather than spend it on creating a storyline that neither makes the gameplay more interesting nor stands on its own as a compelling story.

The basic idea of the game is very simple. You form words using letter tiles, which are arranged in various Mahjong layouts. As with Mahjong, you can only use tiles that are open on at least one side. But instead of matching symbols, you use as many letters as you can to form words. At the level I’m currently at (Apprentice, which is the easiest), there is a limit of eleven letters; I don’t know if higher levels allow longer words.

As with other word games such as Bookworm Adventures, some tiles give you more points, and there is also a suggested “bonus” word, though I haven’t noticed that making those words seems to add many points. (Plus it often happens that one or more tiles needed to make the bonus word are not available.) There is also a timer, which ends the level when you run out of time. At the Apprentice level I sometimes clear the tiles before running out of time, but one of the reviews indicates that at the highest level the time is way too short.

The “reward” for finishing each level is an item in your “Zen Garden,” which provides “soothing visuals and sounds” to help you relax. I have the sound turned off right now, so I don’t know how soothing the sounds are. Somehow I can’t see looking at a picture of a garden on a computer screen to relax – reading a good book or taking a walk is much better for that purpose.

But I like making words. So far, my biggest problem is that my hand and wrist are getting tired from using the mouse to click on letters, as I go through level after level. So now it’s time to take a break and go relax with a good book.