Sunday, December 30, 2012



You might have thought this was just the last name of certain people, which it is, but it also used to have a meaning as a regular word.  Back a long time ago in England, barton meant the lands that belonged to a manor, plus the manor itself.  This was the land that the lord of the manor owned, not including the land that the tenants owned.  A barton could also mean a farmyard or a courtyard.

The word came from the old words bere, which meant "barley" and tun, which meant "stockade" or "enclosure."


Another word that you mostly only hear now as somebody's last name is mercer.  But it used to be that if you were talking about a mercer, you meant a person who sold expensive fabrics, like especially silk. The reason silk was so expensive was because you had to go sailing to China or Japan to get it, or else bring it over the Silk Road on camels.  Mom read the book Moll Flanders not too long ago, and when the main character of the book started doing bad and illegal stuff, one of the things she often did was steal silk or lace from mercers' shops.


You probably know that to mangle something means to mutilate or disfigure it.  But did you also know that a mangle is a machine with heated rollers that you can use to press laundry?  Also, in metalworking, you can squeeze metal plates between the rollers of a mangle, which probably makes the metal flatter and thinner.  I've never tried this, personally, but it seems like that is what would happen.

There is also something called a mangle board.  The Scandinavians liked to make these and decorate them with all sorts of paintings or carvings.  Usually, the handle was shaped like a horse.  The way the mangle boards were used was to roll the wrinkles out of linen cloth that had been wound on a round stick.

Another version of the mangle board was used to smooth out feather mattresses.  One side of the mangle was flat and the other was rounded.

The word mangle comes from the Dutch mangel, which was a diminutive of the Middle High German mange.  And mange came from the Latin manganum, so it's a word with a long history.  The first use of the word was in about 1696.


If you smoke a pipe full of tobacco, and when you finish smoking, you have some unburned or partly burned tobacco left in the bowl of the pipe, that is called dottle.  Who would have known there was a word for this?  It's kind of a fun word, but getting to say it is not a good excuse for smoking a pipe, because smoking is BAD FOR YOU!  The word dottle was first used about 1825.  It came from the Middle English word dottel, which was a diminutive of dot, which meant "lump."


This is a Yiddish word, and what it literally means is "air person."  A luftmensch spends most of the time thinking about airy, intellectual things instead of about practical things such as how to make a living.  A luftmensch is a dreamer with no business sense and probably no income.

I'm glad my mom is not a luftmensch, because if she was, she might not have enough money to buy food for us dogs and cats. Which would be a terrible, horrible tragedy!

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Mom has been very busy the last couple of days trying to get caught up on writing letters to her sponsored kids.  She still has three letters left to write, but I told her maybe she should stop doing that and help me write a blog entry instead.  So she said I could tell you about the two girls in Ecuador that she just finished writing letters to.  Frankly, I'd rather blog about some exotic dog breed, but sometimes I don't get to do what I really most want to do.

Anyway, Ecuador is the only country where Mom is sponsoring two kids.  Well, except for the U.S., where she is now also sponsoring two.  The girl Mom has sponsored the longest in Ecuador is named Xiomara, and she is 16 years old.  Mom started sponsoring her 9 years ago.  The other girl is named Daniela, and she is 11.  Mom has sponsored her for 7 years.

Both of these girls live in a big city named Guayaquil, but there are lots of people in that city, so we don't think that Xiomara and Daniela probably know each other.  The population of Guayaquil is 3.5 million, which makes it one of the largest Pacific coast cities in the Americas.  Guayaquil was founded on July 25, 1538 by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana.  He named the town Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de Guayaquil, which means Most Noble and Loyal City of St. James of Guayaquil.  Of course, there was already a native village on that spot, but the Spaniards always liked to think they were doing something totally new and different.  Luckily, the city's name got shortened to Guayaquil, which is still hard enough to spell and pronounce, if you ask me.

View from Las PeƱas; photo by MalenaN
I'm not going to tell you the rest of the history of Guayaquil because it's long and full of conquests and revolutions and stuff, just like most South American history is.  I will just say that the city kept growing, and it became a really important port because it was located on the west bank of the Guayas River, which flows into the Pacific at the Gulf of Guayaquil.

Guayaquil slums; photo by Michael Shick
There are a lot of slums in Guayaquil, and a lot of poor people live in the slums.  Children International, the organization that helps Mom sponsor Xiomara and Daniela, has been working in this area for 21 years.  Some children don't have enough food to eat because their parents don't have jobs.  Also, kids can't go to school if their parents can't afford to buy them uniforms and books and other school supplies.

Xiomara's family is doing better than some.  They live in a house with concrete walls, a concrete floor, and a concrete roof.  The house has a kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms.  The family cooks on a gas stove, and they have electricity.  They also have running water, use a latrine for their bathroom, and sleep on wooden beds.  Xiomara has a younger sister and brother.

Every month, Xiomara's father makes around $480 as a day laborer.  Her mother is a homemaker.  Right now it's summer vacation in Ecuador, but most of the year Xiomara goes to high school.  Her favorite subject is art.  She has a dog whose name is Loba, which means "she-wolf."  We don't know if Loba is a big, scary dog, or if she's just a little cute thing.  Xiomara's sister has a pet rabbit.  The family used to have some chickens, but they don't have those anymore.

Daniela is in middle school now, and her favorite subject is math.  She has a cat named Michael, a dog named Dulce, and a rabbit named Rabit.  Daniela lives with her father and stepmother because her parents are divorced.  Her father is a daily worker who brings home about $250 a month.  The family lives in a house with concrete walls, wood floors, and a corrugated metal roof.  There are three multipurpose rooms in the house.  There is electricity, a gas stove to cook on, a latrine, and wooden beds.  The family gets water from a delivery truck, and the water is stored in a barrel.

Mom would like to go to Ecuador sometime to visit Xiomara and Daniela.  Also, Mom would like to go to the Galapagos Islands to see all the strange and wonderful animals and birds.  I'd like to go to the Galapagos Islands, too, because I'm thinking that some of the strange and wonderful animals might be tasty to eat.  But Mom says you are just supposed to look at them and not eat them.  And besides, those big, giant tortoises have shells that are too hard to bite through.  So now I'm thinking maybe I don't want to go to the Galapagos Islands after all.

Monday, December 24, 2012


At Christmastime, lots of people put little manger scenes in their houses, and these show the birth of Jesus in a stable.  You pretty much have to have at least Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in one of these scenes, but you can also have shepherds, wise men, and angels.  Also you can put in some nice animals such as sheep, cattle, camels, and a donkey.

There are lots and lots of ways to make nativity scenes, and some of the traditional ways to make them is out of things such as wood, stone, clay, or cloth.  But I found pictures of some really goofy manger scenes online, so I am going to show those to you.  I hope nobody will get mad, because I am not trying to offend anybody.

Anyway, to start with, it turns out that food makes a good nativity scene.  For instance, you can use cupcakes or eggs or (my favorite) bacon and sausages.

This one is carved out of radishes:

Photo by Michael Benanav

I'm not sure what this one is made of, but I don't think you can eat it!

Here is sort of a modern-looking nativity scene made out of blocks:

And this one is mostly made out of tampons and tampon wrappers:

Sometimes what makes a manger scene special is not what it's made of, but who is in it.

But the best manger scenes of all are the ones that have DOGS in them!

Friday, December 21, 2012


The Long Count calendar
on the east side of Stela C
The world might end today.  Or not.  But if it does end, that means I wasted a bunch of time writing this blog entry when I could have been taking a nap!

Anyway, the reason people think the world is going to end is because a cycle in the Mayan Long Count calendar ends today.  The Mayans were some native people who lived in the Yucatan Peninsula and in Guatemala a long time ago.  Their civilization was very advanced, but then it slowly died out, probably because of climate change.

The Mayan people studied astronomy, and they had three kinds of calendars.  One of these was the Long Count calendar.  It was carved on the east side of Stela C in a place called Quirigua.  A stela is just a fancy word for a stone pillar, in case you were wondering.  This Long Count calendar shows when the last creation started, which was in 4 Ajaw 8 Cumku.  In our calendar, this would translate to about August 11, 3114 BCE.  The end of this 5125-year-long cycle is today, December 21, 2012.

There are people who say that numerical formulas and astronomical alignments will make the earth end in a horrible way, such as by getting sucked into a black hole or by colliding with a planet called Nibiru.  But scholars say "Humbug!" about these predictions.  According to a man named Mark Van Stone, who studies Mayan culture, "There is nothing in the Maya or Aztec or ancient Mesoamerican prophecy to suggest that they prophesied a sudden or major change of any sort in 2012.  The notion of a 'Great Cycle' coming to an end is completely a modern invention."

Actual Mayans themselves don't believe their calendar is saying that the world will end.  Santos Esteban is a wood carver who lives in the Mayan village of Yaxuna, and he says, "It's an era.  We are lucky to see how it ends.  Lots of people say it's the end of the word, but we don't believe that."  He also says that he is looking forward to the start of a new age.

But just to be on the safe side, more than 30 schools will be closed today in Michigan.  This might be more because of the killing of schoolchildren last week in Connecticut, though.  Lots of rumors of possible violence happening on December 21 are going around, so the superintendent of schools thought it would be better just to close the schools early for the holidays.

Meanwhile, other people are trying to make money off the idea that the world might be ending.  Vacation trips to visit ancient Mayan sites are popular.  Some of these trips are very expensive, but this doesn't matter because if the world ends, you won't need your money anymore.  For $79,000 per couple, you can go to the Rosewood Mayakoba and get "The Ultimate New Beginning" package.  This includes a spiritual cleansing with a Mayan shaman priest and a private helicopter ride to a tour of architectural sites led by an archeologist.

Some of the hotels in the U.S. are also offering special deals.  At The Keating in San Diego, you get a 40% discount if you pay for your room in advance beyond December 21.  This is a good deal if the world doesn't end, but you will lose money if it does.  Except that you won't need your money anymore if the world ends, like I mentioned before.

The Curtis Hotel in Denver offered "Party Like There's No To-Maya" for only $12,021.  If you bought this deal, you would get an entire floor of the hotel, plus doomsday supplies such as anti-radiation tablets, freeze-dried food and gas masks.  Also there would be a tattoo artist there to give you an ink souvenir of the end of the world.  Sadly, the hotel's director of marketing reported that this package did not sell.  But it did make good publicity for the hotel, so that's the important thing.

Okay, well, that is all I'm going to tell you about the end of the world because, like I said earlier, if the world has already ended by now, I have wasted my time writing this.  But if it hasn't ended, you will probably get to read another entry from me soon!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


If you have not got yourself a Christmas sweater yet this year, you had better hurry, because there are only a few days left until Christmas.  Lots of people seem to like wearing pretty Christmas sweaters, but other people think it's funnier to wear ugly ones.  Sometimes these people even have contests to see who can wear the ugliest sweater of all.

My Chief Research Assistant (Mom) found me a  bunch of pictures of ugly Christmas sweaters on the internet, and I have carefully studied these photos to find out what makes a sweater properly ugly.

The first thing I noticed was that these sweaters have really bright colors.  Usually, these colors are red and green, but sometimes they're a different color, such as pink.

Religious sweaters are good, like for example, with the Baby Jesus on them.

Here's a clever sweater that looks like a Christmas tree.  It even has tinsel and ornaments!

Rudolf looks good on a sweater, especially if you can get a nice 3D effect.

But I think the very best kind of Christmas sweater is one with a famous person on it, because who wouldn't want to share their holiday with Elvis or with Abe?

Monday, December 17, 2012


MISINFORMATION #1:  Quicksand will suck you under.

In movies and cartoons, if the characters walk into quicksand, they get sucked down, kind of like being sucked down a drain.  But this is not really how quicksand works.  What makes sand into quicksand is that there is a whole bunch of water in it, like from a spring underneath it.  So then the sand won't support the weight of the person or cow or truck or whatever went in there, and the more you struggle to get out, the deeper you sink.  So if you get swallowed up by quicksand, it's your own fault and not the fault of the sand sucking you down.

Anyway, if you happen to find that you have wandered into some quicksand, here's what you should do:  dial 911 and wait for help to come.  Or send Lassie to get help.  In the meantime, you should hope that you don't die of sunstroke or thirst or something like that.  Hahahaha!

Okay, here's a better way to get out of the quicksand:  lie down on your back and float, which you can do because your body is lighter than all that watery sand.  Then you can roll or crawl to some solid ground and get out.  This method is supposed to work, but you have to start it right away, as soon as you realize you are in quicksand.  If you wait until you are in up to your knees, it might be too late to get out.

MISINFORMATION #2:  Tulips are from Holland.

Tulips in South Holland
Photo by Allesandro Vecchi
Nowadays, a lot of tulips do come from Holland, but in the beginning, they grew wild in Central Asia.  In fact, the Turks started growing them in gardens all the way back in 1000 CE.  There are a couple of different stories about how tulips ended up in Europe, but the story that seems like it is probably most true is that the Austrian ambassador to the court of the Turkish Emperor brought some bulbs back to Vienna in 1554.

The most expensive tulip hybrid
in the 17th century
At first tulips were mostly grown for medicinal use, but then people started growing them just because they were pretty.  The name tulip came from the Turkish word for turban.  The Dutch fell in love with tulips, and they started growing and exporting them big-time.  From 1634 to 1637, tulips were so popular that this period is called Tulipomania.  Growers came up with all kinds of fancy new hybrids, which they sold for really high prices, like for example, $750, $1,500, or $4,000 for a single bulb.  Then this craze ended, like crazes usually do, and the bottom fell out of the tulip market.  So now it costs much less for people to buy tulips from Holland.

MISINFORMATION #3:  Lightning never strikes in the same place twice.

Chicago; AP photo
This old saying is so not true!  Lightning really does strike in the same place.  In fact, it is even more likely to strike in the same place more than once.  This is because lightning follows the "path of least resistance," using anything that will help bridge the gap between the clouds and the ground.  So tall towers and buildings tend to get hit over and over again by lightning.  A television tower might be hit every 30 seconds during a thunderstorm.  Lightning strikes the Sears Tower in Chicago between 40 and 90 times every year.

MISINFORMATION #4:  Bloomers were invented by Amelia Bloomer.

Actually, the person who dreamed up bloomers was Mrs. Elizabeth Smith Miller.  Both she and Mrs. Amelia Jenks Bloomer were working hard back in the 1850s to get more rights for women, to make women's clothes more practical, and to make alcoholic drinks illegal.  These two women were sort of rivals, and it was Mrs. Miller who invented a pantaloon type of garment that was worn with a short skirt over it.  But Mrs. Bloomer wore it so often when she was speaking in public that people started calling it the "Bloomer suit" or "Bloomers" for short.

The nice thing about bloomers was that women could wear them and do stuff like ride bicycles without showing anything indecent such as their ankles.  But the press made fun of these women in bloomers, so the style didn't really catch on.