Category Archives: Oddities


My colleague (the professor said)
Is most remarkably well read
And of her learning justly proud,
But not, alas, well read aloud.
Her Dante and her Goethe both
She knows — but knows as “Dante” and “Goethe,”
And eyebrows rise at cocktail parties
When she drops the name “Descartes.”
She knows her Nietzsche well, and yet she
Always used to call him “Nietzsche.”
(Having learned that wasn’t right she
Changed, and now she calls him “Nietzsche.”)
I could go on. I might portray
The way she mangles poor “Sartre”;
And others of like magnitude,
From “Euripides” to Sigmund “Freud,”
Make apt examples of her gift,
But — well, I think you get my drift.
However, just as people say,
A broken clock’s right twice a day.
Though names she doesn’t botch are few, one
She gets right is Byron’s Juan.


Filed under Language, Oddities, Poetry

Cold-blooded in cold water

I’ve recently watched several BBC clips about the marine iguanas of Galapagos, and all of them make a big deal about the danger the cold water poses to the cold-blooded iguanas. This clip goes into the most detail:

Down on the shoreline live the most extraordinary of the island’s many strange inhabitants: marine iguanas, the only saltwater lizards in the world.

They eat algae — seaweed — growing on rocks between the tides, so they have to wait for the water to go down before they can feed. They live only on shores exposed to cold currents. The arrival of the cold water is a double-edged sword. Its nutrients stimulate the growth of the algae they eat, but because the lizards are cold-blooded, cold water slows them down and could even kill them. The best algae grow lose to the low tide mark, so it’s a race to eat all they can before the rocks are covered again and their bodies are chilled to danger point. Strong claws and a good grip are essential if you’re not to be swept away.

For most iguanas, life is ruled by the tides, but the big males have another option. Below the low tide mark, the growths of algae are more luxurious because the rocks are always covered. The males use the heat of the tropical sun to exploit them. They expose the greatest possible surface to its warming rays. Because their bodies are larger, they can store more heat and don’t chill down so quickly. When they’ve warmed to an optimum of 25 [or 35? unclear pronunciation] degrees, they take to the water. Down here they can take advantage of a food supply that’s out of reach for the smaller iguanas. They can hold their breath for 20 minutes or more, but they have to feed fast. Every minute they spend here, the heat is draining from their body. If their temperature falls too low, they’ll be unable to move, and they’ll die. It’s time to go.

As the voiceover  goes on about how dangerous the cold seawater is to the iguanas (on account of they’re cold-blooded, you see), the camera shows plenty of equally cold-blooded fish swimming around without any problem. The obvious question this raises is never addressed. The program talks as if the iguanas’ way of life were almost unheard of — “Get this!” it seems to say, “a marine animal that’s cold-blooded!” — when in fact ectothermy is the norm for marine life, even in the coldest parts of the sea. (What do penguins eat? Fish, squid, and crustaceans.) Warm-bloodedness is a terrestrial trait which has never evolved in aquatic animals. The only endotherms in the sea are whales, seals, penguins, and other air-breathing animals whose warm blood is a legacy of their terrestrial ancestors. (That’s actually pretty strange, when you think about it, given that the sea — especially the deep sea — tends to be much colder than the land. My guess at an explanation would be that the ambient temperature doesn’t change as much in the sea as it does on land, so marine animals can just adapt to whatever the ambient temperature happens to be. On land, there are seasons and weather to cope with.)

So why is cold-bloodedness such a big problem for iguanas but not for fish? At first I thought it might have something to do with the antifreeze proteins some fish (but not reptiles) have — but antifreeze proteins are only for dealing with water so cold that it would otherwise literally freeze a fish’s blood, and, according to this map, the sea around the Galapagos, while certainly a bit chilly by equatorial standards, isn’t anywhere near cold enough for freezing to be an issue. According to the range map here, cold-blooded sea turtles seem to do just fine without antifreeze both in the Galapagos area and in waters a good 10 degrees cooler.

So far I haven’t figured this out — this post has been in my drafts folder for quite some time now waiting for me to find the answer — but I’m going to go ahead and post it in hopes that some knowledgeable person will happen upon it and leave an enlightening comment. I’ll keep reading and thinking and post again if I find anything that sheds any light. In the meantime, here are some more entertaining marine iguana clips.

With an annoying sea lion:

With lots of spitting:

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Filed under Iguanas, Oddities

Baboons react to the death of Michael Jackson

I’m sure this page will come to Yahoo’s attention soon and be corrected, so for the benefit of posterity here’s what it looks like now:

In addition to the headline/photo combination, there’s this great line from the text: “The baboons were named local officials who are supposed to prevent baboons from entering houses and cars.” Presumably they meant to say they were named by local officials — or maybe South African politics really is that corrupt.

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Wocky-Bocky; or, the general public

I found this in Conrad Roth’s review of Michael Neo Palaeologus His Grammar, by his Father Stephen N. Palaeologus:

The language of the Grammar is, in fact, utterly delightful, and possibly its chief selling-point. . . . Wocky-Bocky, the name of an Indian chief in a story by Artemus Ward, is resurrected to mean ‘the general public’.

Now this, it must be admitted, is perfect. So perfect that I intend to resurrect it myself. (I almost wish I were a more politically oriented person, so that I might have more opportunities to refer, say, to the Wocky-Bocky Republic of China, or to a certain rough beast which I should of course rechristen wockibockiocracy.) This post exists so that I (or, reader, you) can unobtrusively link to it when using the word, in much the same way that one might include a courtesy link to the Wikipedia page for an obscure historical personage mentioned in passing.

Here is the relevant passage from Artemus Ward’s Panorama:

But there were too many of these Injuns–there were forty of them–and only one of me–and so I said–

“Great Chief–I surrender.” His name was Wocky-bocky.

He dismounted–and approached me. I saw his tomahawk glisten in the morning sunlight. Fire was in his eye. Wocky-bocky came very close to me and seized me by the hair of my head. He mingled his swarthy fingers with my golden tresses–and he rubbed his dreadful Thomashawk across my lily-white face. He said–

“Torsha arrah darrah mishky bookshean!”

I told him he was right.

Wocky-bocky again rubbed his tomahawk across my face, and said–“Wink-ho–loo-boo!”

Says I–“Mr. Wocky-bocky”–says I–“Wocky–I have thought so for years–and so’s all our family.”

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Filed under Language, Oddities

Reading: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

I finished Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the Barnes & Noble edition with introduction and notes by Jeffrey Meyers, on 17 Aug 2009.

This is the first Kipling I’ve read since I was a kid (Jungle Book, Just So Stories, that kind of thing), and I was impressed. He’s a remarkably skillful writer with a knack for choosing precisely the right word. The settings and characters are completely convincing (particularly the Lama, the Babu, and Kim himself), and the spirit of the novel is generous, perceptive, and humane. The plot isn’t especially strong, but other aspects of the book are so gripping that one hardly cares.

The notes accompanying this edition are useful but suboptimal. Meyers often neglects to gloss unfamiliar words until the third or fourth time they occur, and the many geographical footnotes are less helpful than a map would have been. Meyers also sometimes seems to see literary allusions which are simply not there. For example, when the Lama bids his disciple farewell with “Dost thou love me? Then go, or my heart cracks,” a footnote informs us that this is a reference to King Lear‘s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” — leaving the reader to guess what, other the word “crack,” the two passages have in common and why a Tibetan Lama would be alluding to Shakespeare.

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Filed under Literature, Oddities

Reading: Barbara Gowdy

I’ve read one book by Gowdy:

  • Mister Sandman (13 May 2007)

An odd but excellent novel, recommended to me by my brother Joseph. Gowdy captures so many ways of thinking which are spot-on, but which writers seldom manage to express so well. Also some memorable images (“I love you” as “a stupid surprise like a squirt in the face from a carnation”; not having had a lover in three years as “like owing the Mafia”).

My copy of the book, at least, seems to be a bit confused about what else the author has written. Here’s the back cover:

Falling Angels, Through the Glass Valley, and We So Seldom Look on Love. Translated into thirteen languages.

The page before the title page has this:

Falling Angels, So Seldom We Look on Love, and Through the Green Valley.

The last page has yet another version (the correct one, according to Amazon):

Falling Angels, Through the Green Valley, and We So Seldom Look on Love. Published in thirteen countries.

Only Falling Angels is the same on all three lists. There also seems to be some confusion over whether her books have been published in thirteen countries or translated into thirteen languages. I find this all almost awe-inspiring, the evident work of an anti-genius at Harcourt Brace & Company. Or perhaps Gowdy herself is behind it, laughing up her sleeve.

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